Understanding Alternative Fuels for Sustainable Shipping: A Comprehensive Guide

What are Alternative Fuels, and Why Should the Shipping Industry Embrace Them?

The shipping industry is one of the largest contributors to global emissions, and transitioning to alternative fuels is one of the most effective ways to reduce its environmental impact. Alternative fuels are clean, renewable sources of energy that can be used instead of traditional fossil fuels. They can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality significantly. But why should the shipping industry embrace alternative fuels, and what can these new technologies mean for green shipping? What challenges must be addressed before alternative fuels can be widely adopted in the shipping industry?

Types of Alternative Fuels in Shipping and Their Benefits

Alternative fuel sources can reduce emissions and improve efficiency. Renewable fuels are becoming more popular as shipping companies seek ways to reduce their environmental impact. These alternative fuels offer several advantages over traditional fossil fuels, including lower emissions and improved efficiency. 

Some of the leading alternative shipping fuels and their respective benefits include:

LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas): LNG is a low-emission alternative to traditional marine fuels. It produces 20-30% less carbon dioxide emissions, up to 90% less nitrogen oxide emissions, and virtually no sulfur oxide emissions. LNG is also readily available and can be produced from various sources, including natural gas reserves and biogas.

According to DNV, shipping companies ordered 521 LNG-powered vessels in 2022. One hundred seventy-five of those are container ships.

Biofuels: Biofuels are derived from renewable sources such as waste oil, vegetable oil, and animal fats. They significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can be used in existing engines with little or no modification. Biofuels also have the potential to support local economies and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

CMA CGM is one of the companies using bio-fuels in 32 of their vessels as part of a six-month trial. The largest ship on biofuel is the 10,640 TEU vessel APL Paris.

Hydrogen: Hydrogen fuel cells are a promising alternative to traditional marine fuels. They produce no emissions besides water vapor and can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen can also be made from renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

In February of last year, a French project named Energy Observer launched its design for a liquid hydrogen-powered container ship. The prototype can carry a modest load of 240 containers.

Methanol: Methanol is a liquid fuel that can be produced from renewable sources such as biomass and waste. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions and can be used in existing engines with minor modifications. Methanol also has the potential to support local economies and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Maersk has just launched its first dual-fuel 2100-TEU container ship that can operate on green methanol.

Ammonia: Ammonia is a nitrogen-based fuel that produces no carbon emissions when burned. It can be made from renewable sources and offers the potential for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Ammonia is also readily available and can be used in existing engines with minor modifications.

Startup Amogy is retrofitting a tugboat with its new ammonia-to-power engine. In Norway, two projects are running with ammonia-powered ships—one with an engine running on ammonia, the other with an ammonia-powered fuel cell. There aren’t yet any containerships running on ammonia.

The Challenges of Implementing Alternative Fuel Technologies in Maritime Shipping

The implementation of alternative fuel technologies in maritime shipping is a complex process that is facing several challenges.

Limited availability: shipping relies heavily on fossil fuels, and fuels such as biofuels, hydrogen, and ammonia have yet to be widely available. This limited availability makes adopting alternative fuels on a large scale challenging.

High infrastructure development costs: significant investments in infrastructure are needed to make alternative fuels available at all ports where ships need to call, such as building new fueling stations and storage facilities. 

Technical challenges: Alternative fuels require different handling, storage, and transportation methods than traditional fuels. The technical challenges of implementing these new systems can be significant and may require additional training and equipment for personnel.

Regulatory challenges: Regulations play a crucial role in adopting new fuels in the maritime sector. There needs to be more transparent and consistent regulations governing the use of alternative fuels. This uncertainty can make it difficult for companies to invest in these technologies.

Environmental concerns: environmental concerns such as greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and water contamination must also be considered. These concerns can impact the viability of certain alternative fuels and the public perception of the industry’s commitment to sustainability. However, most of the alternatives are cleaner than fossil fuels.

To help spur the adoption of these sustainable fuel technologies, governments worldwide have implemented incentives such as tax credits, subsidies, and grants that support ship owners in making the switch.

Which alternative fuel will be the winner? Let’s hope it’s the cleanest because there is only one earth, and we must act fast to save it.

Header Image Courtesy of Energy Observer

About the author:

Martijn Graat

Martijn is Zergratran’s Head of Content. He writes about the latest trends and innovations in logistics and anything related to Zergratran