Getting to grips with methanol bunkering

In-Depth

As methanol becomes an increasingly popular option for achieving carbon reduction in ocean shipping more ports are turning their minds to providing the bunkering infrastructure to meet demand.

According to DNV’s latest updated “Alternative Fuels for Containerships” paper series, there are currently 29 operational ships equipped to run on methanol, with an additional 228 vessels on order. As of January, approximately 70% of these orders were in the container sector, with the remaining orders primarily consisting of vessels in the bulk and roll-on/roll-off segments.

Methanol’s advantages have led major shipping companies, including industry leaders like Maersk, CMA CGM, and COSCO, to embrace it as a primary marine fuel for the future. As an eco-friendly and biodegradable fuel methanol shares similarities with liquid fuels commonly used in the maritime sector. However, it has both a low flashpoint and an aggressive nature. It is more flammable than ammonia and emits a flame that may be difficult to discern during daylight, thereby posing a fire hazard.

Methanol production can derive from various sources, including biomass, bio-methane, renewable electricity combined with CO2, as well as fossil fuels like natural gas and coal. Currently, the primary method involves using natural gas, which serves as both a feedstock and process fuel in its production.

Grey, blue and green

At this point, the majority of methanol traded on a global scale originates from the steam reformation of natural gas, commonly known as grey methanol. This process occurs in facilities capable of yielding up to 5,000 tons per day, equating to 1.8mt annually. Traditional natural gas-based plants can reduce their carbon emissions through various methods such as CO2 recirculation, importing CO2 externally, incorporating green hydrogen, or substituting natural gas-powered machinery with electrically operated equipment, thereby producing low-carbon or “blue” methanol.

Shipping companies can currently utilise grey methanol to drastically reduce emissions of conventional pollutants like SOX, NOX, and PM. This approach allows for a gradual transition towards blue and green methanol as these sustainable fuel options become increasingly accessible.

Renewable (or “green”) methanol is the ultimate goal – if derived from renewable sources, methanol has the potential to cut CO2 emissions by as much as 95% in contrast to traditional fuels. Green methanol would add no new CO2 to the atmosphere, making vessels that use it carbon neutral. Moreover, renewable methanol decreases nitrogen oxide emissions by as much as 80%, while eliminating sulphur oxide and particulate matter emissions.

It is also important to note that methanol readily mixes with water and is biodegradable. In the event of a spill, any impact on marine life is expected to be temporary and reversible.

Getting onboard

Since the launch of the first methanol-powered vessel, the Stena Germanica, nearly a decade ago, there has been a significant increase in expertise regarding the use of methanol as a marine fuel. Demonstrations of methanol bunkering, including truck-to-ship in 2015, shore-to-ship in 2016, and barge-to-ship in 2021, have all been successful.

A considerable amount of current infrastructure designed for marine gas oil and heavy fuel oil is capable of straightforward adaptation to accommodate supplementary methanol bunkering needs.

Information from 2023 reveals that methanol is available at more than 125 of the world’s largest ports, including all major bunkering hubs, with relatively low infrastructure costs. From a regulatory perspective, there are various sources of information regarding methanol bunkering. The IMO IGC Code includes provisions for vessels engaged in bunkering activities with methanol. Also issued have been port-specific guidelines, operational checklists, and classification rules.

Larger storage tanks

From a technical standpoint, methanol can readily be integrated for widespread use aboard ships, boasting a five to six-year advantage over alternative marine fuels like ammonia, liquefied biogas, electricity, hydrogen, etc. Essentially, methanol handling aligns more closely with gasoline than diesel fuels.

It should be noted that the dimensions occupied by storage and fuel tanks on methanol-powered ships are approximately 2.4 times greater than those on vessels using marine gas oil. However, this drawback is offset by regular bunkering practices and the versatility of methanol storage. In contrast to LNG and hydrogen, which require cryogenic storage and significantly reduce cargo space, methanol can be stored in standard fuel storage tanks and even in ballast tanks on a vessel.

Bunkering ships via terminal storage involves storing methanol in a large tank at the port, primarily catering to large vessels following fixed routes. An illustration of terminal bunkering occurred in October 2022, when CSSC Hengyu Energy bunkered three 49,000-ton tankers with 240 tons of methanol sourced from a specialised terminal facility.

Although most bunkering is currently done by truck, there is ongoing development of methanol bunkering vessels, with the first barge-to-ship operation conducted in May 2021 in the Port of Rotterdam.

Singapore gets ready

The inaugural ship-to-ship methanol bunkering operation in Singapore took place in July 2023, where the Laura Maersk container vessel was refuelled with approximately 300 metric tonnes of green methanol.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) is eager to develop as a methanol bunkering hub, and recently issued an expression of interest to potential suppliers. MPA received a total of 50 submissions, of which 40% proposed end-to-end solutions. According to MPA, the proposals received for low-carbon methanol supply and delivery are promising, with several projects already in operation or have crossed to the Final Investment Decision stage. On aggregate, these projects have the potential to supply over one million tons per year of low-carbon methanol by 2030, subject to commercial decisions and global developments.

Antwerp-Bruges

The Port of Antwerp-Bruges carried out its first methanol bunkering operation in June 2023, when 475t of methanol was bunkered onto the tanker Stena Pro Marine. The first methanol bunkering of a large container ship took place at the beginning of April this year, when Ane Maersk, the world’s first large methanol-powered deep-sea vessel, called at Antwerp’s MSC PSA European Terminal.

The 16,000 TEU dual-fuel vessel was bunkered with 4,300 tons of green methanol and 1,375 tons of biodiesel (B100). The bunkering operation took place at the same time as containers were exchanged in what the port calls ‘simultaneous operations’, aimed at increasing the efficiency of the port stay by lowering additional time allocated for refuelling.

“Port of Antwerp-Bruges is still in the process of making the framework for methanol bunkering available, to be completed this year. Until this process is finalised, all methanol bunkers are done on ‘case by case’. A proper risk analysis of methanol as a fuel has already been completed,” a port spokesperson said in a statement to WorldCargo News.

“In the ‘case by case’ approach, we organised pre-meetings between the ship operator, bunker supplier, and terminal. A joint plan of operations is a prerequisite. This plan describes in detail the bunker process, the sequence of the operations, safety zones, measures to mitigate the risk, and the check of certificates and hoses. Simultaneously, the shore workers are informed and prepared for the risks of methanol.”

Leveraging its robust infrastructure and strategic location within Europe’s largest chemical cluster, the Port of Antwerp believes it is equipped to seamlessly accommodate methanol bunkering operations.

“Within the Port of Antwerp-Bruges, the necessary infrastructure and capability for bunkering methanol is available. Several tank terminals can provide storage tanks for methanol. The largest chemical cluster in Europe is located within the port. A lot of the inland transportation is done via the inland waterways,” the port authority said.

“As a consequence, several inland barge companies operate chemical barges, suitable for methanol bunkering. The demand for green methanol as a bunker fuel just starts now. This means that the actual barges within the delivery of methanol as a marine fuel, are not yet 100% dedicated for bunkering.”

Already onboard

Specifically for methanol, Rotterdam represents the largest hub in north-western Europe. Leading traders and producers already operate from the port, including Methanex, OCI and Proman. Methanol can be stored at various tank storage terminals at the port, including EVOS, Vopak, ETT and Koole.

The world’s second-largest bunkering port expects methanol bunkering to become a regular feature as most of the dual-fuel newbuildings will be delivered in 2024. Currently, around 100 kilo-tonnes per annum of green methanol is transhipped, with this volume expected to rise in the coming years.

In China, the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) inked an MoU with multiple partners to advance the development of methanol bunkering in mid 2023. Seven months later Astrid Maersk berthed at Yangshan port in Shanghai, for the first green methanol bunkering with simultaneous cargo and bunkering operations in China. Astrid Maersk was bunkered by Hai Gang Zhi Yuan, China’s premier methanol bunkering ship and the world’s largest in operation.

Investment in methanol bunkering vessels is part of SIPG’s mission to create China’s first green methanol industrial chain with partner companies including COSCO Shipping, State Power Investment Corporation, and China Certification & Inspection Group.

Still waiting

In Germany, the arrival of the Ane Maersk on March 28 at Eurogate Container Terminal Hamburg has highlighted a funding gap. Angela Titzrath, President of the Central Association of German Seaport Companies, noted that while the German national port strategy outlines the need for investments in storage and bunkering capacities for alternative fuels, funding allocated for port infrastructure upgrades has not kept pace.

“Without sufficient investment in German ports, there will be no propulsion change in shipping and no energy transition in Germany,” said Titzrath. “Ane Maersk shows that we have to implement the national port strategy quickly.”

To date, however, there has been no formulation of federal and state funding initiatives aimed at upgrading port infrastructure to accommodate the energy transition, and vessels like the Ane Maersk, in German seaports. The Association sees this as a major hurdle to overcome.

North America, Africa, and Australia

Elsewhere, in April 2023, Proman Stena Bulk, the joint venture between methanol producer Proman and the tanker company Stena Bulk, announced the milestone achievement of the inaugural barge-to-ship methanol bunkering operation on the US Gulf Coast. Stena Pro Marine and Stena Prosperous were refuelled with methanol via barge while discharging clean petroleum products at a terminal in the Port of Houston.

Getting to grips with Methanol bunkering
Stena Provident completed the first-ever methanol bunkering at the Port of Savannah, Georgia, this February

Additionally, methanol-fuelled Stena Provident completed the first-ever methanol bunkering at the Port of Savannah on 29 February 2024. This event took place at Colonial Terminals’ Lathrop 2 facility, where the vessel efficiently loaded nearly 1000 tonnes of methanol.

In August 2023, East Port Said in Egypt witnessed the successful completion of its first methanol fuel bunkering operation for a Maersk container ship, marking a significant milestone as the first of its kind in Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East. Just a month later, OCI Global, a producer and distributor of hydrogen-based products, obtained its initial green methanol bunkering permit for both East Port Said and West Port Said.

Additionally, in December 2023, Scatec, a Norwegian renewable energy company, and the Suez Canal Economic Zone formalised an MoU to collaborate on the development of a green fuel bunkering terminal specifically tailored for East Port Said.

In April 2023, a further MoU was signed, this time involving the Port of Melbourne, Maersk, ANL (a subsidiary of CMA-CGM), Svitzer, Stolthaven Terminals, HAMR Energy, and ABEL Energy. The purpose of this agreement is to investigate the economic viability of creating a green methanol bunkering hub at the Port of Melbourne.

Maersk in Yokohama

In December 2023, Maersk signed a MoU with the City of Yokohama and Mitsubishi Gas Chemical for the development of green methanol bunkering infrastructure in Japan’s largest container port, Yokohama. Maersk’s sister company, APM Terminals, operates the Minami-Honmoku container terminal there.

Additionally, in March this year, Chinese shipbuilder Zhoushan Xinya Shipbuilding Company held a steel-cutting ceremony for what has been described in the industry as the world’s first methanol dual-fuel retrofit project of a container ship. The steel was cut on the first prefabricated blocks for the retrofit of 14,000 TEU Maersk Halifax.

Furthermore, constraints in the accessibility of green methanol could lead to a clustering of supply within major bunkering hubs and European ports. These locations are anticipated to experience heightened demand for low-emission fuels in the coming decade, driven by the FuelEU Maritime regulation and the incorporation of shipping into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

This scenario presents developers with opportunities to enhance green methanol production, and facilitate green methanol distribution across a broader range of ports.

Methanol has its detractors, but Lloyds Register says it is ready to help shipowners leverage its experience from the Stena Germanica. “Over the past eight years, all parties in the original project have built on their early learnings. We have developed full class rules to support future conversions, hired specialist personnel, and are creating comprehensive guidelines for the substantial number of alternative fuel retrofits expected in the coming years.”

New export opportunities

A new report from the Zero-Emission Shipping Mission titled “Oceans of Opportunity, Supplying Green Methanol and Ammonia at Ports” said ports in the global south have favourable conditions to produce e-ammonia or methanol.

Energy transition, the Zero-Emission Shipping Mission said, “will create new opportunities to both build a hydrogen production economy and participate in the global bunker market. Ports that have less favourable production conditions will instead be able to benefit from the trade of green methanol and ammonia, making them significant end-use markets for hydrogen exporters and project developers.”

In the immediate term, especially in the period to 2030, the Zero-Emission Shipping Mission sees the constraint on the supply of green methanol shaping trade flows between producers and ports. An example of such a trade flow is the potential for Tasmania, Australia, to become an export port for green methanol to Singapore.

In Tasmania, Australia, ABEL Energy is developing a green hydrogen plant in Bell Bay. The company has signed an MoU with the Port of Melbourne, Maersk, ANL, Svitzer, Stolthaven Terminals and HAMR Energy to explore the commercial feasibility of establishing a green methanol storage and bunkering hub at the port.

ABEL Energy has subsequently proposed a second A$1.7 billion methanol manufacturing plant on 16-22 hectares of land at the Cleveland Bay Industrial Park, close to the Port of Townsville in Tasmania. This facility is aimed at producing 400,000t of methanol for export per annum. ABEL Energy had already completed the Singapore Port MPA to become a supplier of green methanol exported to Singapore through the Port of Townsville.

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