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What should be the next green fuels?

There is a perception that the use of LNG as a marine fuel has become ‘a thing of the past’, a shipping conference in Singapore is told

It is hoped that leaders in the more consolidated boxship sector could reduce their obsession with the first-mover advantage and sit together to come up with solutions that would help the wider shipping industry forge a more efficient way of developing future clean marine fuels

THE perception has emerged in recent months that the use of liquefied natural gas as a marine fuel is now “a thing of the past,” Braemar analyst Anoop Singh has told Marine Money Asia conference.

“We used to get three or four requests from clients for our LNG dual fuel briefing every month, and we hardly see that at all. Generally, the interest is now drifting towards methanol and ammonia,” he said.

On the shoreside, the switch from coal to gas empowered by a carbon market has been the main contributor to European Union's emission reduction—a pattern that other economies, such as China, try to follow.

So will shipping, the backbone industry for sea-borne trade, “skip that gas phase”? Mr Singh asked.

Too early to tell. But the doubt might well cast a shadow over those owners who have spared no cost and gone down the LNG fuel path.

Whether their investment will pay off largely depends on the number of their followers. The bigger the crowd, the better the chance to improve infrastructure and lower costs.

Some speakers believe that Maersk’s recent blockbuster orders has made methanol a game changer.

Chris Chatterton, chief operating officer at the Methanol Institute, described the move as “a significant strategic initiative”.

“It has already driven lots of interest in methanol across all vessel types, not just [containerships]. And it’s going to significantly forward the business case for clean fuels,” he said.

Not all are convinced, however.

“Maybe it’s a game changer for [Maersk], but two years from now, who knows,” said Sim Keat Lim, managing director of bulker operator G2 Ocean.

Even the Danish giant itself admits the limit of methanol despite all the merits, with the biggest problem being the lack of supply of the fuel.

That suggests methanol could face the same risk as LNG: turning from a pioneer green fuel into “a thing of the past” in a faster-than-expected manner.

“Methanol is definitely not the only solution. We are also looking at ammonia and lithium,” said Rene Piil Pedersen, head of Maersk Singapore.

And it is widely reckoned that there will be multiple fuel technologies being explored and developed neck and neck over the next five to 10 years before they will be converged into one or two final solutions.

But Mr Lim then raised another interesting question: does it have to be this way?

Indeed, the development of zero-emission marine fuel is a complicated process, requiring a broad involvement of various stakeholders — not least the shipowners and the fuel producers — let alone the regulators.

Yet surely it would help to hammer out a more efficient approach if the owners, especially the leading ones, can first reduce their craving for the first-mover advantage and increase collaboration.

It is arguable a mission impossible for the highly fragmented dry bulker and tanker sectors.

But what about the liners which have become much more consolidated in recent years?

“There is an opportunity for the containers carriers if the top five, which controls 65% of the market share, would come together and work out a solution,” said Mr Lim. 

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