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LNG emerging as a viable future marine fuel

20 May 2014

Ship operators are assessing their compliance options ahead of the adoption of stringent new emission regulations that come into effect in 2020.

Under the International Maritime Organization's (IMO's) MARPOL Annex VI, sulfur content of ships' emissions will not be permitted to exceed 0.5% in the open sea and as low as 0.1% in designated Emission Control Areas. Owners must choose from burning low-sulfur fuel, installation of scrubber systems, and use of liquefied natural gas (LNG)-the latter seen as an increasingly viable option.

Over most of the past decade, aside from large LNG carriers using their cargo boil-off, only small-scale examples of LNG-fueled ships have been observed, primarily in the Baltic region close to dedicated LNG supplies. Starting in 2011, however, a new market for larger LNG-powered vessels began to emerge:

  • Marine equipment supplier Wärtsilä partnered with Tarbit Shipping to convert the 26,000-dwt tanker Bit Viking to LNG propulsion, leading others to consider this a viable fuel.
  • In December 2012, TOTE became the first operator to order a gas-powered container ship, when it placed an order with General Dynamics' NASSCO yard for two 3,100-teu ships to operate on its Florida-Puerto Rico service. TOTE subsequently strengthened its commitment to gas by announcing the conversion of its two Orca-class ro-ros, which operate a truck service between Washington and Alaska.
  • In January 2013, the 57,000-ton cruise ferry Viking Grace became the largest vessel (non-gas tanker) to be propelled by LNG, demonstrating that the technology works on a large scale.

But for LNG to become seriously considered as a marine fuel, infrastructure will need to be put in place globally. The bunker hubs of Singapore and Rotterdam have developed terminals that will make supply possible in the future. Already, United Arab Shipping Company (UASC) has ordered 16 ultra-large container ships designed to be retrofitted with gas tanks when that infrastructure is in place. But the market has yet to see the commitment to dedicated LNG bunkering tankers that will be crucial for supplying such vessels on a widespread basis.

Fuel storage is a second potential obstacle to LNG adoption, as in most instances fuel tanks will occupy valuable revenue-generating space. This is clearly evident in the TOTE container ship design, in which much of the stern hold capacity is lost due to the location of the tanks. In the case of UASC's container ships, a potential solution is the placement of the tanks in the void beneath the accommodation block, minimizing the loss of cargo-carrying space. A second potential retrofit solution, fitting Type-B prismatic tanks within the ship's hull, awaits the finalization of the IMO's International Code for Gas or Other Low Flash-Point Fuels (IGF Code), which is not set to be approved until November 2014.

The maritime sector has started to seriously consider LNG as a future fuel. If the IGF Code is finalized this year, and LNG bunker facilities developed at global hubs, larger ships with greater long-haul fueling requirements will be able to operate on gas.

Krispen Atkinson was a Principal Analyst, IHS Maritime

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