Apr 16

Image: Chris Pagan on Unsplash

A new research center in Denmark seeks to reduce the shipping industry’s carbon footprint

Leaders in the maritime shipping industry, the backbone of global trade, are betting on innovation to become carbon neutral this century. It will be no simple task. 

The shipping sector, which accounts for around 3% of global carbon emissions, seeks to become zero carbon within this century. Short-term measures related to increased energy efficiency are enabling a 40% relative reduction in the next decade.  

In response to this challenge, the AP Moller Foundation — part of the majority shareholder in Maersk, the world’s largest container shipper — pledged about $60 million for the creation of a Denmark-based research center called the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping. The founding partners of the new center also include ABS, Cargill, MAN Energy Solutions, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, NYK Line and Siemens Energy, showing cooperation at various industry inputs from construction to energy. 

Seaborne transit carries between 70 – 90 percent of global trade, depending on the source of information. The shipping industry uses bunker fuels, which are among the cheapest and dirtiest of refinery outflows. Even as standards reducing sulfur emission have been tightened from the start of this year, companies have so far failed to reach the environmental protection goals set within the industry. 

The zero-carbon challenge

While the aim is high, the path to get there remains unclear. Maritime players remain baffled by the main question — how to rebuild global maritime infrastructure and fleets to reach zero carbon. The difficulty of this problem has caused the carbon neutral target to be pushed back towards the end of the century as no such carbon free fuel exists in scale with deliverable infrastructure, at reasonable cost and reliability for deep sea tankers.  

Carbon reduction plans will essentially require re-building or refitting the entire global fleet of ships. And that means long lead times. The research center in Denmark, a conglomeration of specialists from the world’s leading shippers, engineers and shipbuilders, will aim to instruct the process as old ships are retired and new ships designed and built.   

The Copenhagen-based center will ramp up to around 100 employees over the first 2-3 years and collaborate with new partners. The founding partner companies will provide one-third of the needed staff while the remaining two-thirds will be recruited independently. The center staff will feature experts in administration, energy, fuels and ship technology as well as regulatory affairs, finance and the global energy transition. 

The research center will collaborate globally to create overviews of decarbonization pathways, accelerate the development of selected decarbonizing fuels and powering technologies, and support the establishment of regulatory, financial and commercial means to enable transformation, according to the statement on Maersk’s website. 

The fuel question

The question of which fuels will be used will be key in the future of carbon reduction. Fuel type will influence engine type and set up. While coastal vessels, such as ferries, may be able to convert to electrical and battery power, which can theoretically can be fed with renewable energy, deep sea vessels require fuel. 

As of now, alternative fuels suffer from lack of scale. Hydrogen and ammonia, two examples of non-carbon emitting fuels, still face technical and pricing challenges without even yet considering the scale question. Royal Dutch Shell, for example, has conducted projects on the creation of hydrogen fuels. 

Hydrogen is abundant but has to be produced through chemical reactions to gain purity, according to Shell’s website. Around 99% of hydrogen today is produced through fossil-fuel reforming, a process that produces a reaction between natural gas and steam. Hydrogen can also be produced from renewable sources, using biogas, a gaseous form of methane obtained from biomass, or through electrolysis using electricity generated by renewable sources, according to the energy producer. 

While using natural gas to create usable hydrogen involves carbon emissions, using renewable energy to power the electrolysis process of creating hydrogen fuel would avoid carbon emission. This could, if at some point costs allow, create a reliable carbon-free fuel source for ships as it would eliminate the main cons of renewable sources, like wind or sun, which lack dependability.  

The industry is currently pushing ahead in some places to use “bridge” fuels such as liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which burn with lower carbon emission. LNG carrier vessels themselves have led this change. But vessels using liquified natural gas require modifications to their engines or the installation of a different engine to use the fuel- and it isn’t even getting to zero carbon. 

Furthermore, it will be necessary to stop methane leaks in the engines of LNG-powered vessels. These leaks are harmful and contribute to global warming, rolling back gains in carbon reduction made from the switch to the cleaner fuel.

Looking ahead

The research center will also have other areas to push the pollution-free agenda. Shippers and ports can convert to greener sources for shore power for ships while they are in port. Deep sea vessels themselves can be equipped with waste heat converters which generate power. Maersk has also green lighted a project on wind-assisted rotor sails for tankers that can cut fuel consumption and reduce emissions. Fuel efficient cruising speeds can be imposed on fleets to reduce consumption and emission.  

The research center will have its work cut out for it as large-scale changes entail long lead times. Innovation is tricky work, where investment often fails to gain a return. And the subsequent integration of innovative practices into industry standards and processes is no less tricky. It remains unclear if the research center can help accomplish the goals it has set in front of the industry. On the other hand, those goals will certainly not be achieved unless an effort is put forth. The combination of specialists from different sectors to instruct the process feels very much like a step in the right direction.  

Stephen Bierman

By Stephen Bierman

Stephen Bierman is an energy markets journalist and the editor of New Economy Observer.

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