Supporting shipping’s switch to clean fuels

Advanced digital technologies will be needed to help ship owners handle the complex systems, costly operations and demanding training requirements associated with carbon-neutral fuels

Shipping will face many obstacles as it strives to reduce its emissions impact. The switch to cleaner fuels, essential for much of the global fleet, will bring added cost and complexity as well as the need for new skills. Digital systems will play a key role in enabling this transition. 

In November 2020, IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting (MEPC 75) proposed its first short-term measures to reduce ships’ greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in line with IMO’s 2030 and 2050 GHG reduction targets. This year it will begin discussing longer-term solutions including how to encourage development and uptake of new fuel technologies. 

Many fuels are vying for the chance to become the mainstay of any future fleet, including hydrogen, LNG, LPG, ammonia, methanol and biofuel. A broader range of propulsion technologies will also be considered, with fuel cells and batteries being widely touted as a possible replacement for ship engines on some vessel types and trades. 

As with any big change, there will be challenges. The shipping industry has relied on conventional engines and, in most cases, a single fuel type for decades. New fuels will lead to increasingly complex systems and introduce new hazards. It is likely that greater automation and optimisation will be required to not only manage these systems and the new risks they might bring with them, but also to operate them efficiently to keep costs down.  

Every mile counts 

Smart systems that combine bridge systems, cloud data management, data services, decision support tools, and access to real-time information enable vessels to make journeys more efficiently. This operational efficiency will be crucial. In a world where emerging fuels present supply and storage challenges, every nautical mile counts.  

According to Hendrik Busshoff, Product Manager Autonomy at Wärtsilä Voyage, low energy density (a factor common to many new fuels) and relatively low availability will be big challenges. 

If you’re using an alternative fuel you’re punished twice. First of all, you can carry less energy onboard, so you have less range. Secondly this lower range is likely wasted on detours because a lot of this fuel isn’t widely available yet.

- Hendrik Busshoff, Product Manager Autonomy, Wärtsilä Voyage

With potentially smaller volumes of more expensive fuel onboard – and fewer places to bunker – voyage optimisation becomes an essential element in ensuring efficient operations. Wärtsilä’s Fleet Operations Solution (FOS) integrates with the ship’s planning station and ECDIS and then uses data analytics and machine learning to offer several benefits. These include better route and speed selection as well as automatic weather optimisation alerts, which combined can lead to significant reductions in fuel costs.

Operations are also simplified in several ways; voyage planning time can be cut by several hours while noon reporting and other reporting – including for emissions monitoring and for charter party compliance - can be largely automated. Combined, these fuel savings and operational efficiencies can make a big difference to the feasibility of running with clean fuels. 

Increasing automation of navigation can further reduce running costs. Wärtsilä’s recently launched SmartMove suite of automated navigation tools are among the systems that can simplify operations, make sailing safer and – crucially - accelerate payback for the increased financial investment required for new fuel systems and propulsion technologies.

When you decarbonise you’ll likely be left with added costs, at least in the beginning. Reducing complexity and leveraging higher levels of automation or autonomy can help through offsetting this by allowing you to reduce costs elsewhere. 

Regulating complex systems  

Automation can deliver greater value, reliability and efficiency from the complex propulsion systems that are likely to proliferate as shipping’s energy transition advances. Vessels powered by diesel-electric or fully electric means are one example where the intelligent use of automated systems can have a big impact on efficiency. 

As ship owners increasingly deploy hybrid technologies such as wind, batteries, or fuel cells in conjunction with their engines, managing shipboard electricity distribution will become more important. In such cases, the systems generating power are just one part of the challenge, says Busshoff. The greater challenge is cleverly managing that electrical power.  

"One thing is having a reliable and affordable electrical energy source. The other is using this electrical energy source intelligently, alone or in conjunction with combustion engines. But we've actually done the latter already. So, if you can design your ship in a way that is relatively agnostic about where I get my electricity from, then you're drawing a line to the future."

This is where Wärtsilä, as a one-stop-shop for energy storage and management as well as for automation and optimisation solutions, can make a real difference. The capability to integrate everything from a battery and a smart propulsion to navigation control makes the difference between an efficient hassle-free solution and suboptimal piecemeal.

- Hendrik Busshoff, Product Manager Autonomy, Wärtsilä Voyage

Increasing the level of automation in shipping is a long-term challenge, and while it may be relatively simple to deploy these solutions on those vessels that can decarbonise by harnessing electricity, it is far more challenging for the larger vessels that will rely on engines and clean fuels. 

Busshoff explains that the sector needs to better understand the challenges of handling and using these fuels before automating the systems involved. This is another point where it is essential to have a partner who can look at large integrated systems instead of just individual components. With multiple projects and pilot tests investigating, that knowledge will emerge over the next few years, enabling automation solutions to be developed as the new fuels become commercially available. 

Training for the future 

A huge challenge posed by the adoption of new fuel technology is re-skilling crew members to use them safely and efficiently. Not only will it be an operational necessity, but there will also be a regulatory requirement too. Handling LNG – the only ‘future fuel’ that is already commercially available and in use - formally became part of maritime training standards in 2017 when the IMO added requirement to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). 

LNG tanker at sea

New fuels coming on stream will certainly have similar regulatory requirements in the future. The cost implications of having to re-skill crews could be massive, requiring operators to invest vast sums before they are even permitted to deploy vessels that utilise these new fuels.   

One way to cut back on those costs, as well as the logistical and time requirements, is through simulator training. Vittorio Esposito is Director of Simulation Solutions at Wärtsilä Voyage and himself a former chief engineer who spent many years at sea. In recent years he has overseen the development of new simulation software that enables crews to be taught how to operate LNG as a fuel.  

There has been an ‘immense’ demand for training in the field of LNG use, says Esposito. Last October for example, Wärtsilä Voyage delivered and installed customised LNGPac bunkering and liquid cargo handling simulators at the Mumbai training centre of Hong Kong-based Anglo-Eastern Univan Group. 

Gas is an extremely difficult thing to handle. Even for the best engineer out there you need to learn how gas behaves to start with. Having the capabilities of a simulator that shows you the behaviour of the gas in different conditions has a lot of value.

- Vittorio Esposito, Director of Simulation Solutions, Wärtsilä Voyage

Wärtsilä’s LNGPac simulation training module benefits from an unparalleled dataset based on Wärtsilä’s extensive engine and fuel-handling experience with LNG. High-fidelity graphics provide a realistic training experience that can be used to teach crew how to use either Wärtsilä or generic LNG systems.

According to STCW requirements, crew training for an LNG fuel ticket can earn up to half of their practical bunkering experience through simulation. That dramatically reduces cost compared to real-life ship bunkering and means that candidates can be tested across a much wider range of scenarios. Those factors will be important as even more expensive fuels with even more challenging characteristics emerge. 

Esposito expects that LNG will be the dominant clean fuel for the next decade or two. As other alternative fuels are assessed by the industry, the Wärtsilä Voyage team will follow developments carefully. Early expertise learned through LNGPac simulation training will give the company an edge when simulation packages are needed for these fuels. 

Training is just one element of the monumental challenge as an entire industry switches to clean fuels over the next two decades. But with digital support in fields as diverse as route optimisation, autonomous navigation and simulation training, ship owners can be sure that they will find plenty of opportunity to minimise cost and complexity along the way. 

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