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Alfa Laval, Man Energy to launch large-scale tests for methanol in marine diesel engines

Highlights

Other alternative fuels, like LNG, currently more popular

Methanol an expensive option at present

London — Engineering firms Alfa Laval and MAN Energy and partners are to start large-scale tests for methanol in a four-stroke, 2 MW diesel engine without modifications or an additional pilot fuel, Alfa Laval said in a statement March 8.

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Initiated two years ago, the project's partners include Alfa Laval, MAN Energy Solutions, the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and biofuel producer Nordic Green. Through joint research, the consortium seeks to develop a methanol fuel system that can adapt to today's marine diesel engines, the statement said.

At present, combusting methanol requires pilot ignition with fuel oil, which necessitates two fuel lines and different types of fuel tanks on board. "If methanol from renewable sources could be burned directly in standard compression engines, it would offer a shortcut to carbon-neutral shipping," Lars Skytte Jorgensen, Vice President Technology Development at Alfa Laval's Marine Division, said in the statement.

Burning methanol in an unmodified diesel engine will require new engine software, which must be developed through engine testing and work with combustion modelling, Alfa Laval said.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is targeting a reduction in the shipping industry's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared with 2008, and reducing the carbon intensity of emissions by 40% by 2030, and 70% by 2050 compared with 2008 levels.

This means shipowners must find new fuels on which to run their ships, moving away from the currently prevalent 0.5%S fuel oil.

Mixed prospects for methanol

Able to be produced as a biofuel or synthetically, conventional methanol can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 15% compared to conventional marine fuels, while the environmentally friendlier version offers up to 95% carbon savings, according to Stuart McCall, director for business development at Canadian methanol producer Methanex.

But current cost levels, scaling up the current supplies of the fuel and overcoming its much lower energy density than current shipping fuels are major hurdles for methanol.

The fuel is gaining traction. AP Moller-Maersk, owner of the largest shipping company in the world, is aiming to operate the world's first carbon-neutral vessel by 2023, seven years ahead of schedule, running on carbon-neutral methanol, it said Feb. 17.

The feeder vessel will be launched in 2023 and will have a capacity of 2,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).

"While the vessel will be able to operate on standard [0.5%S fuel oil], the plan is to operate the vessel on carbon neutral methanol or sustainable bio-methanol from day one," Maersk said.

This is part of a pilot program for the company as it looks for a scalable carbon-neutral product for customers and fuel suppliers.

Across the industry, uptake of methanol has so far been fairly limited. In 2019, 12 LPG carriers were retrofitted to run on LPG and 24 new LPG carriers were ordered, according to Christos Chryssakis, business development manager at classification society DNV GL. There is one methanol passenger vessel, nine methanol tankers and 15 new methanol tankers on order, he said. There were 11 tankers running on methanol, according to data from Canadian methanol producer Methanex.

Both these fuels trail behind LNG, which fuels over 150 ships. Around 1.5 million mt of LNG was consumed as bunker fuel in 2020, Chryssakis said.

Methanol has found itself at a cost disadvantage to LNG and conventional shipping fuels in 2020. Demand for formaldehyde, the biggest outlet for methanol, has been consistently strong and at the same time there has been a global shortage of product, amid planned and unplanned outages.

S&P Global Platts data for March 5 at Rotterdam showed methanol at $18.03/gigajoules, 0.5% sulfur fuel oil at $11.53/Gj, marine gasoil at $12.09/Gj, 3.5%S FO at $ 9.55/Gj and LNG at $6.17/Gj.