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Speaking at a seminar on maritime future technologies, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency’s Chief Executive Brian Johnson said that shipping will ‘converge on a suite of long-term solutions’, and there will be a ‘massive opportunity for the UK’ to help support the transition.

Surveying the various contenders vying to replace conventional marine fuel oil at the seminar held yesterday (14 September) as part of the London International Shipping Week (LISW), Johnson saw both LNG and methanol as interim transition fuels.

However, he said that LNG has only a ‘limited impact on emissions’, while methanol produces carbon dioxide (which would have to be scrubbed and stored) and it is not energy-dense compared to convention fuel. Indeed, said Johnson, ’10,000 tonnes of methanol would be required by a large container ship currently fuelled with 5,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil to have a similar range’.

Biofuels, by contrast, do have the same energy density as current fuels. However, said Johnson, they are also likely to be attractive to the aviation sector, and around 40% of the world’s arable land would be required to harvest enough biofuels to meet the demands of both industries.

The four options remaining, continued Johnson, are batteries, hydrogen, ammonia and nuclear power.

Batteries, said Johnson, might be used by shipping with a range of up to 200 miles But, he added: ‘Except for very short routes, it is likely that these ships will also have auxiliary power sources, such as engines or fuel cells.’ The use of batteries also raises questions about their disposal and recycling.

Nuclear power, said Johnson, would probably appeal to ships at the opposite end of the size spectrum to batteries. Furthermore, he also argued that the nuclear option ‘may be attractive to larger ships due to the difficulty, expensive and time required to build the global infrastructure required by other fuel solutions’.

There are currently significant public concerns over the safety of using nuclear power – but these could be overcome. ‘We believe that, depending on the difficulty in creating infrastructure for other fuels,’ said Johnson, ‘attitudes towards use of nuclear technology in shipping may change and its use may become more attractive.’

Ammonia, like methanol, is less energy-dense than conventional marine fuels but, continued Johnson, it is a something that is already familiar to many in the shipping sector. Ammonia does offer considerable potential as an alternative marine fuel – and it has certainly sparked a lot of interest in the industry with many feasibility studies already underway in Singapore and other locations – but Johnson pointed out that it will need to meet a ‘sufficiently safe and secure threshold’. Another ‘key determinant’ for ammonia’s future as a marine fuel will be the progress made on the ‘technology to eliminate nitrous oxides emissions in either engines or fuel cells’.

With hydrogen too, it will be important to ensure that its transfer and onboard storage and distribution can be made ‘sufficiently safe and secure’. Johnson felt that: ‘The threshold is likely to be very high and could be difficult to meet [when] used as fuel on a large ship.’

Moving forward, Johnson said there will need to be a ‘system change’ with a ‘range of solutions based on the complexity and diversity of the maritime sector at the international and national levels’. He also expected that: ‘With the right market-based measures applied locally and/or internationally, shipowners will retrofit a suite of existing efficiency technology and operating parameters to existing shipping that might reduce carbon emissions per tonne-mile by up to 30%.’

Furthermore, Johnson added: ‘All the viable new fuel solutions require substantial new global infrastructure.’ This will be costly - but it will present significant opportunities to the technology providers helping the shipping industry to meet these needs, and Johnson expected the UK to play a ‘lead role’ as both a ‘home for early solution adopters’ and a hotbed of innovation.

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