Fuels of the future

Marine engineers face challenges with many more choices on tomorrow’s bunker menu

By Michael Grey

That’s progress for you. One hundred years ago there were only two fuels that you could employ for marine propulsion – coal (dirty and labour intensive), and oil (so much more convenient). Looking ahead just a few years from now, there will be a whole menu of different alternatives available to enable a ship to get from A to B.

There will be ships fuelled by methanol, ammonia, hydrogen and used vegetable oils, all of which have made their first tentative steps as ship operators search for more sustainable means of propulsion. The use of LNG is well-established, even though there are questions about its green credentials. Electric and hybrid propulsion systems are increasing in size and power – although it is difficult to see the imminent disappearance of the fuel oil that has been the mainstay of marine propulsion for so long. An exciting recent announcement was the use of bicarbonate of soda (used by most competent cooks) as a cleaning agent in scrubbers that will keep emissions within limits. There is going to be a lot of choice.

All of these fuels and propulsion technologies will clearly make the lives of marine engineers very different from that of their predecessors. Well within the memories of senior seafarers, engineers were classified and indeed certificated as being competent to operate either steam or motor plant, which was very much less complicated. Moving from one type to another would require an ‘endorsement’ which could be earned by experience on the other type of ship. Today steam engineers are relative rarities and those who run diesel plant tend to have become specialists in slow speed or medium speed engines, or categorised even more finely by one brand of diesel machinery with which they are familiar.

Recruitment challenges

Experience seems to count a lot with modern-day recruitment, even though it makes life very much more difficult for those doing the recruiting. Just imagine a telephone conversation between a ship manager looking for a second engineer for one of the ships and a recruitment agent.

“I need a second engineer.”

“No problem – we have plenty on our books!”

“Medium speed experience.” “We have a few of those around.”

“They need to be familiar with Wärtsilä plant.”

“I think we have a couple available.”

“They have to be able to cope with methanol or even ammonia.”

“Sorry – can’t help you today – try again later!”

It won’t be easy, coping with the demands of the industry as people become ever more specialised, as these fuels – as the classification societies have warned – have very different characteristics. Some, like ammonia or hydrogen, offer different degrees of hazard in their handling or use in the machinery. There is still very little real indication of the relative costs of these sustainable fuels, most of which, in their green form, will require a huge amount of electric power for their production process.

There is already some concern about the availability of these fuels once the demand for them grows as the world approaches its ‘net zero’ targets. At present the whole industry can be assured that there are few other major competitors for the ‘bottom of the barrel’ fuel oil shipping consumes in such vast quantities around the world. Nobody really wants that stuff!

It will be a very different scenario once huge numbers of shore-based consumers are wanting to burn the green fuels of the future to achieve their climate targets. Shipping will be just one industry in the queue and whatever fuel is chosen, will have to pay the market price, which will clearly be demand-led. It is likely that the costs of carrying stuff – and people – around the world by sea, will rise steeply.

Thus, at the moment, the industry is in a state of flux. A few major players have expressed their preference for the fuel they want, but most are keeping their options open. Watch this bunker space.