New methanol ships start to change ocean freight amid efforts to replace some bunker fuel and cut down on emissions

During the next three years there will be an unprecedented number of methanol ship launches for uses including container transportation with the development possible thanks to new methanol engine offerings to help shippers lower emissions compared with diesel and bunker fuels.

Maersk has announced vessels to be powered by methanol. The first will be in operation in 2024. Image courtesy of AP Moeller - Maersk

MAN, Rolls-Royce, and Wartsila are some of the companies behind new methanol engines to give shippers the option to switch from diesel and bunker fuels to methanol. Methanol is easier to produce and store than LNG. It´s already one of the top five traded chemical commodities.

“There are some 90,000 vessels in the world consuming over 330 million metric tons of diesel bunker fuel a year and there are only a dozen vessels running on methanol,” said Greg Dolan, CEO of the Methanol Institute, in an April 2022 interview.

But this is about to start to change as shipping company Maersk said on March 10 it partnered with six companies to source at least 730,000 tonnes per year of methanol by the end of 2025 needed to power a dozen ships.

“There are already a dozen chemical tankers operating using methanol dual fuel engines, and there are a lot more vessels that will be coming on the water,” said Dolan, president of the methanol global trade association.

Most methanol-fueled tankers today have operations associated with methanol producers and are fueled by engines that draw the chemical from their cargo.

In 2021 the world´s methanol demand was 87 million tonnes, 60% for downstream applications like formaldehyde, acetic acid, plastic resins, and auto parts. The rest was fuel for cars, trucks, ships, industrial boilers, cookstoves, and home heating, Dolan said.

The methanol pathway

Helsinki-based Wartsila Corp announced on March 17 a new fuel supply system for methanol “as interest grows in the methanol pathway to decarbonization” in marine fuel.

The Wartsila 32 Methanol engine can be used “across a wide range of vessel segments,” it said. 

A dual methanol engine has been used since 2015 for the Stena Germanica ferry ship, according to the Swedish shipping company.

Van Oord, a Dutch dredge operator, has ordered a methanol ship for installing wind turbines, according to media reports.

MAN Energy Solutions, Germany-based diesel marine engine manufacturer, received in July 2021 an order to supply a dual-fuel methanol engine to move containers.

Rolls-Royce said in December that new methanol-related technology will be made available for use in commercial ships and yachts.

Switzerland-based Proman, the second biggest methanol producer, moved on Nov. 2021 to water the first of three dual-fuel methanol ships to continue construction with the vessel afloat. All three vessels will be delivered by late 2023.

Reduced emissions

“The expectation is that methanol will be one of the future fuels as the shipping industry looks to achieve its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets,” Dolan said.

“Right now the only alternative to the marine fuels in the bunker sector are LNG and methanol. There is a lot of interest in ammonia and hydrogen but those technologies are still very much in the developing stage,” he said.

LNG needs cryogenic storage and LNG plants are expensive, also leaving a significant carbon footprint.

“We can make methanol from biomass, biogas, renewable electricity plus CO2” Dolan added. Methanol can be produced in landfills and milk farms.

Methanol is also a good hydrogen carrier as it has the highest hydrogen-to-carbon ratio of any liquid fuel because methanol lacks carbon-to-carbon bonds, Dolan said.

Methanol is also biodegradable, according to the website of Proman, the second biggest methanol producer with facilities in the U.S., Trinidad and Tobago, and Oman.

Changing demand profile

Methanex, the Canada-based company that is the world´s top methanol producer, owns plants in Chile, Trinidad and Tobago as well as in the U.S., where it is expanding capacity mostly for export, mainly to Asia.

China is the world´s largest methanol consumer and importer. Methanol there is used both as fuel and to produce plastics through MTO (methanol-to-olefins) technology.

Over the last ten years methanol demand “has already doubled” to the current 87 million metric tonnes, Dolan said.

“Much of the increased methanol demand was to provide to olefin units operating in China. The first MTO started operation in 2011. Now twelve of those plants consume 20% of the world´s methanol so the industry has shown it can ramp up supply to meet demand,” he added.

In most of the world methanol comes from natural gas steam reformation. In China the bulk comes from coal gasification.

“In the current case it is MTO. We´re hoping in the future that the next demand center for methanol would be marine fuel,” Dolan said.

Methanol road use

Methanol is and has been used as road fuel across the world. About 26,000 taxis or vehicles for hire run on methanol in China.  

In Denmark, a “methanol fuel-cell car converts liquid methanol to hydrogen gas that runs fuel cells.  The result is that an electric car with a 300-km range when using methanol fuel cells can extend that range to 1,000 km,” Dolan said.

Methanol was used as fuel in U.S. roads about two decades ago. The last model that could run on methanol was a 1999 Ford Taurus.

“California had at one point 16,000 cars running on methanol and a hundred fueling stations in the mid to late 1990s,” Dolan said.

“There was a fleet of 100 cars with New York Thruway Authority and there were methanol pumps at every rest area along the New York State Thruway,” Dolan added.

Interest in methanol declined in the 1990s when the price of oil "dropped considerably so the price advantage of methanol was reduced,” Dolan said.

“The introduction of reformulated gasoline that largely used MTBE which made unleaded gasoline cleaner also diminished some of the environmental benefits of methanol because we were able to make gasoline cleaner,” he added. MTBE was later phased out for road use in the U.S. and replaced with ethanol which is added to the fuel mix as an oxygenate.

By Renzo Pipoli