Methanol edges ahead in shipping’s quest for cleaner fuel, as regulators warn of dangers of ammonia

The Singapore port authority recently issued a media response in an attempt to calm down the hype over ammonia bunkering. It cautioned that a widely-reported timeline to transfer ammonia in Singapore waters by end-2023 was ‘not realistic’.

Singapore port_night
The Singapore government is nudging its shipping sector to focus on decarbonisation despite slower growth and the high costs involved in searching for greener fuels. Image: Hanson Lu / Unsplash

In the maritime sector’s search for alternative fuels to replace dirty bunker oil, ammonia – a pungent but colourless fuel that emits no carbon dioxide when burned – seems to be enjoying its moment in the spotlight. The exploration of ammonia as a viable and cleaner replacement fuel to power ocean vessels is now a greenfield free-for-all, and competition is heating up as players eye the first-mover advantage. 

Yet regulators around the world have been wary about how safe it is to transfer ammonia at sea, especially if training and emergency procedures have not been thoroughly thought through, and safety standards not in place. Multiple safety reports have highlighted alarming high-risk results for ammonia. In November last year, a joint study released by three parties, including environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), warned that the shipping industry must “proceed with caution” as ammonia leaks and spills can potentially hurt aquatic environments, and are especially threatening to fish species.

“It is important to study the impact of ammonia carefully for particular regions where these habitats intersect with major shipping channels and ports, such as the Strait of Malacca,” the report said. 

Earlier this month, Singapore’s maritime and port authority (MPA) also pushed back against narratives claiming that ship-to-ship transfer of ammonia in Singapore waters could be feasible by end-2023. Its statement was issued in response to widely-reported comments made by chief of the Global Centre for Maritime Decarbonisation (GCMD) Lynn Loo, that plans are underway for the first ammonia bunkering pilot to take place soon, subject to whether it gets the green light from regulatory agencies. 

A GCMD study identifying risks for conducting the pilots in Singapore to be “low or mitigable” was also published. 

MPA said that the views do not represent its assessment, nor that of other government agencies. The timeline to implement ammonia transfer before 2023 is “not realistic”, it said, and should not prejudge the outcomes of current assessments already being carried out by the relevant agencies. 

These included an expression of interest (EOI) launched by the MPA and the Energy Market Authority of Singapore (EMA) in December last year to build, own and operate low or zero-carbon hydrogen and ammonia bunkering solutions. The EOI’s closing date was 30 April this year, and the authorities said they were still reviewing the proposals received. 

Mainstreaming methanol

MPA said it remains open to the use of different alternative fuels which can reduce the maritime industry’s carbon emissions. But while it cites studies that point to the risks involved in handling ammonia as a bunker fuel, the agency has been touting the use of ‘green methanol’ as the more viable alternative. 

Preparations are already underway for the first methanol bunkering operation in the Singapore port – the busiest in the world in terms of shipping tonnage –  and that operations will start in the next quarter this year. 

In line with Singapore Maritime Week, which took place earlier this month, chief executive of MPA Teo Eng Dih took to LinkedIn to promote the “several advantages” of using methanol as a replacement. The fuel, he said, is more convenient to store, transport and distribute, and existing storage tanks and pipelines from terminal operators, such as Vopak, a Dutch multinational that runs an integrated oil, chemical and gas hybrid storage terminal in Singapore, are methanol-compatible. 

“While ship engines for ammonia and hydrogen are being developed,” he said, “shipping industry members and cruise liners have ordered dual-fuelled methanol vessels as part of [their preparation for] a multi-fuel future.” 

Methanol, widely used as a chemical in plastics, autos and paint, is quickly mainstreaming and gaining an edge over hydrogen and ammonia, the other two green fuel candidates. One reason is that the fuel can be stored at room temperature  – with a low flash point at 11 degrees Celsius – and is unlike ammonia, which requires expensive vessel retrofits and pressurised tanks for safe storage. 

No vessel currently runs on ammonia today. The proposed GCMD trials were also to be conducted with what the centre describes as “proxy assets”. 

Observers say that choosing methanol is the safer bet for regulators. In the past few months, it is becoming evident that methanol is taking the lead.

A growing order book for methanol-fuelled ships is one sign that more experts in the shipping industry see methanol as the more promising alternative fuel. Methanol-fuelled ships now represent 12 per cent of the orderbook by capacity globally, as compared to less than 1 per cent a year ago. 

Some of the industry’s biggest names, including Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S and China’s Cosco Shipping Holdings, are splashing out on methanol-fuelled ships, and the fierce demand surge, in some cases, has led to price wars

The ship has not sailed for ammonia

Growth in demand for shipping worldwide has meant that maritime emissions have been accelerating. Global shipping spews out 3 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gases, and there is pressure for the sector to decarbonise faster. 

GCMD told Eco-Business that it will not further comment on MPA’s statement. Its nine-month study, completed with its appointed consultant DNV Maritime Advisory, identified and assessed more than 400 potential risks and found these risks “manageable with mitigation measures”, and would pave the way for a pilot project to take place at three identified sites in Singapore. 

The report projects that ammonia will make up 10 per cent of all marine fuels bunkered here in 2035. 

In a previous interview with Eco-Business, GCMD chief Loo said that although the supply of renewable ammonia produced using carbon-neutral methods is virtually nonexistent, that does not mean meaningful action cannot be taken now to prepare for its eventual use to fuel a ship. 

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