EU operators consider LNG fuel as a viable alternative.
Ships powered by liquefied natural gas could become the answer to Europe"s low-sulphur woes.
INTEREST in liquefied natural gas powered ships is peaking due to Europe"s rapidly approaching low-sulphur fuel restrictions.
While regulation imposing fuel with a sulphur content of no more than 1% is already a technical challenge, the 2015 deadline for 0.1% fuel could mean phasing out the burning of heavy fuel entirely in the so-called sulphur emission control areas ? the North Sea, Baltic Sea and Channel.
LNG-powered ships are already a reality in Norway, where a fleet of around 20 vessels plies regular services. The engine technology exists, and there is no denying its ability to reduce emissions.
Burning LNG is sulphur-free. It also produces 86% less nitrogen dioxide and 100% less particulate matter than traditional fuels.
To make it even more attractive, it produces 25% less carbon dioxide, a bonus given shipping"s struggle to contribute to the fight against climate change.
But will it catch on? Aside from the obvious hurdle ? a lack of LNG fuelling stations ? there are those who believe natural gas will not become viable without government intervention. Ferry operator Stena Line has investigated and rejected investing in LNG-powered engines.
?We are not comfortable with the overall energy balance,? said Stena sustainability director Johan Roos.
?We have not yet decided to make any investments in LNG and we will not do so until we see a proper study with details of the total energy cost.?
LNG suffered from the same doubts as fuel-ethanol when it came to its appropriateness for reducing climate change emissions, said Mr Roos. Fuel ethanol could be produced from renewable crops and gave off less CO₂ when burnt, but was the equation still positive when the entire production chain is taken into account ? extraction, storage, distribution? This was not yet proven, he said.
Because the Norwegian government also taxes NO₂, the Norwegian example was not relevant given the level of government backing, Mr Roos said. ?You need some subsidy to make this work,? he said.
Stena was therefore relying on marine gas oil and scrubbing to meet the new Seca requirements.
Others, on the other hand, feel LNG"s time could well have come.
?LNG if bought in sufficient quantity is cheaper than marine gas oil. Shipowners are now making their calculations,? said European Maritime Safety Agency executive director Willem de Ruiter.
?Scandinavian industry has got wind of the change. Paper exporters, for example, are aware transport costs will go up. There are lots of investment decisions in the pipeline among northeast ferry operators and shortsea operators. By 2015, LNG will be an economic alternative.?
Regulators would have to invent a regime for safely handling, distributing and storing LNG along the lines of the Rotterdam petroleum regime, Mr de Ruiter said.
The International Maritime Organization has already developed rules for gas-propelled ships designed to make engine rooms safe, though there is still a need for them to be formally adopted.
?These rules cover the ship side. Now there is a similar need for the bunkering side,? Mr de Ruiter said.
Retrofitting is complex, so the technology is aimed at newbuildings. LNG tanks reportedly need to be two or three times larger for the same quantity of fuel.
The big question is whether governments, or perhaps the European Union, will have to intervene to give LNG a helping hand. EU subsidies from funds such as Marco Polo or the Trans-European Transport Network could, for example, be used to build fuelling stations.
Subsidising LNG might bring more concrete rewards than the EU"s modal shift policy.