What are e-methanol and green methanol and why can they mark the future of cargo ships

Maersk’s multimillion-dollar investment project in Spain, in e-methanol production plants that would be used as fuel in its fleet of cargo ships, has surprised both its scope and volume of investment and the fuel to which it refers .

Currently and for decades, the vast majority of large cargo ships use various kinds of fuel oil (fuel or fuel oil) as fuel, the most common of which is number 6, which is known as bunker fuel or bunker 6 This fraction of oil is the densest (viscous) and polluting, highlighting the high sulfur content of most of its formulations. The use of this fossil fuel in ships, of course, is one of the sources of emission into the atmosphere of large amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2).

International regulations for the reduction of air pollution and the fight against climate change are forcing the naval sector, and especially cargo ship owners, to look for fuels with less environmental impact.

There are several alternatives under study and one of them is methanol, methyl alcohol or burning alcohol, as this flammable and colorless liquid was popularly known (very toxic if ingested).

Comparative advantages

Methanol offers several advantages as an alternative fuel for maritime transport to fuel oil, and in comparison with other possibilities under study such as liquefied natural gas, ammonia or hydrogen.

In addition to being easy to handle, low-toxic and low-hazard, methanol remains liquid at ambient temperature and pressure and therefore allows conventional storage and bunkering to continue to be used in ports and ships with few modifications. There is already a range of reliable dual-fuel ship engines on the market (which can run on fuel oil or methanol, or mixtures of both) that offer operators the flexibility they need to react to changes in environmental regulations and availability. made out of fuel.

A less polluting version

Green methanol is methanol that has been produced through processes with low polluting or greenhouse gas emissions, or even being considered ‘zero emissions’ (neutral in net emissions).

A Maersk ship in Rotterdam, in a file image

A Maersk ship in Rotterdam, in a file image

Jerry Lampen / AFP

Green methanol can be made, for example, from biomass gasification or renewable electricity; as would be the case of mixing green hydrogen (produced by electrolysis with renewable energies) and carbon dioxide (CO2) captured or extracted from the atmosphere.

E-methanol, or electro-methanol, in order to be truly considered “green” must fall into the category of so-called “renewable (electro) fuels of non-biological origin” (RFNBO, in its acronym in English), remember Carlos Bravo, responsible for maritime transport at the Transport & Environment association in Spain.

“As announced by the Government and Maersk, the e-methanol that would be produced in the facilities that are planned to be built in Galicia and Andalusia would be obtained from green hydrogen with CO2 capture, for which it could be classified as an RFNBO, that is, it would be green e-methanol”, concludes Carlos Bravo.

Green e-methanol, when subjected to a combustion process in an engine, emits CO2 and water (H2O), like all hydrocarbons, but CO2 emissions are clearly zero, since the CO2 emitted would be the same as that which would have been taken from the air for manufacturing. That is what differentiates them from hydrocarbons of fossil origin.

Even if the production process is not carbon neutral, e-methanol would provide shipbuilders with a gradual transition or adaptation to increasingly stringent environmental regulations. This gradual process, moreover, would make it possible to adjust the investments required to introduce modifications to the current fleet or the construction of new ships.

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Pilar Blazquez

A Maersk ship in Rotterdam, in a file image

A key sector pending adaptation

Shipping is almost completely dependent on fossil fuels, and its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as various air pollutants and black carbon, are on the rise. International shipping issues 1,076 million tons of GHG per year, ranking (if sectors and countries are mixed in the same ranking) as the sixth largest emitter in the world, after China, the United States, India, the Russian Federation and Japan. Despite the importance of maritime transport in the deterioration of the climate, the decarbonization strategy of the International Maritime Organization (IMO, the United Nations agency that regulates this sector), is not yet aligned with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

“Despite the huge delay in the maritime transport sector towards its complete decarbonization, this is possible and can be done through the integration of various measures, in the short, medium and long term. Thus, the increase in the efficiency of engines, propellers and the design of the ship itself will have a significant impact in reducing emissions and, above all, in curbing future emissions growth Other operational efficiency measures, in particular reducing the speed of ships, are very important to reduce energy consumption and emissions, and can be adopted immediately and in the most cost-effective way All of the above measures, together with others such as wind support systems for navigation, or the use of battery systems electricity for small boats or boats that make short trips, would save significant amounts of fuel and, therefore, significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions i greenhouse”, says Carlos Bravo, responsible for maritime transport at Transport & Environment in Spain.

“But to achieve the total decarbonization of transport, it will be necessary, in a form or scale that can be applied to large commercial ships, especially those that make transoceanic voyages, the use of renewable fuels of non-biological origin (RFNBO), that is to say the green hydrogen (obtained by electrolysis of water using exclusively 100% renewable energy) and electrofuels derived from it, such as e-methanol or e-ammonia In this sense, the initiative jointly announced by Maersk and the Spanish government, if finally ends up becoming a reality, it’s great news”, adds Carlos Bravo

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