The challenge

As with any shipping firm, Maersk needs carbon neutral fuels to propel its global fleet if it is to meet the mandated goal of zero emissions by 2050. Shipping is responsible for around 2-3% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, so Maersk is determined to play its part in creating a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

Up to this point, energy efficiency was, and continues to be, an important tool for Maersk in reducing emissions. Efficiency measures already reduced Maersk’s emissions by 10% more than the industry standard but getting to net zero is going to require a total shift in the way deep sea vessels are propelled. Simply put, the shipping industry needs to introduce carbon neutral propulsion fuels and new technologies to complement them.
Rather counter-intuitively, Maersk sees a large part of the challenge not on sea, but on land. Making changes within a vessel provide relatively minor emission-neutralising benefits when compared with the massive potential of innovative solutions and fuel transformation that must be found to produce and distribute sustainable energy sources on a global scale.

Maersk set itself the deadline of having a commercially viable carbon-neutral vessel in service 11 years from now.

The solution

So how is this ambitious target going to be achieved? The first step had to be with detailed research. Maersk asked Lloyd’s Register to create a joint modelling exercise to look at the various fuel options available, their costs and, most importantly their effectiveness at reducing emissions.

The joint study evaluated the interplay between the economic performance of zero-emission vessels (ZEVs), technology readiness of fuels, associated machinery configurations, as well as safety and environmental considerations, all in the context of the wider energy system and the dependable production of future fuels. The study also found that the most relevant carbon neutral fuel configurations have relatively similar cost projections, so initial modelling cannot yet determine clear winners purely from a cost point of view.

The result

Lloyd’s Register and Maersk found that to develop zero carbon ready ships, shipowners must invest in fuel flexibility. The study partners also quickly identified that achieving net zero is an operating expense (OPEX) rather than a capital expenditure (CAPEX) challenge. Another key finding was that the market itself will not drive the transition to zero, so policy interventions and improved incentives are required.

But the headline finding was that the best opportunity for decarbonising shipping lies in finding sustainable energy sources. Based on market projections, the best positioned fuels for research and development into net zero fuels at this point are alcohol, biomethane and ammonia.

Alcohols (ethanol & methanol) are not highly toxic and have various possible production pathways directly from biomass and/or via renewable hydrogen combined with carbon from either biomass or carbon capture. Existing solutions for handling the low flash point and for burning alcohols are well proven. Ethanol and methanol are fully mixable in the vessel’s bunker tanks, creating bunkering flexibility. However, the transition of the industry towards alcohol-based solutions is yet to be defined.

Biomethane on the other hand has a potential smooth transition given existing technology and infrastructure. The challenge however is ‘methane slip’ – the emission of unburned methane along the entire supply chain.

Ammonia is truly carbon free and can be produced from renewable electricity. The energy conversion rate of this system is higher than that of biomaterial-based systems, but the production pathway cannot tap into potential energy sources as e.g. waste biomass. The main challenge for ammonia is that it is highly toxic and even small accidents can create major risks to the crew and the environment. The transition to future application remains a huge challenge.

The three fuel pathways all have relatively similar costs, but present different challenges and opportunities. Based on these findings with Lloyd’s Register, Maersk now has more clarity over the pathways to reach zero emissions and will therefore increase its focus on developing these pathways and affecting real change in the years to come – reducing emissions to net zero.