Methanol as Marine Fuel?

The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee has adopted new interim guidelines on the use of ethyl and methyl alcohols as options for marine fuel. Currently, Methanol is considered to be among the lowest emission fuels for marine engines and the new guidelines hope the make more shipowners consider Methanol as a low carbon compliance option.

Why Methanol?

Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, is an environmentally interesting fuel for ships which has received an increased attention due to the possibility of being produced with renewable sources such as municipal waste, industrial waste, biomass and carbon dioxide. It has also a low sulphur content and low NOx and particulate matter making it an excellent alternative for IMO sulphur emission control areas (ECA)

At present, there are 12 methanol powered chemical tankers in operation with 10 more on order. Stena Line, the Swedish ferry and freight operators has successfully retrofitted in the past one of its vessel for using methanol. In April 2020, Stena Germanica, the first ship in the world to run on methanol as a marine fuel, has recorded five years of successful operation since this large ro-ro ferry was converted to be capable of running on the alternative clean-burning fuel.


Environmental benefits of Methanol as fuel

The environmental benefits of methanol are highly dependent on the raw materials used to make it. Natural gas and coal are the most common unfortunately, but the most exciting for the future are the renewables. Methanol, when produced from biomass has the potential to reduce emissions significantly. In Iceland, for example, methanol is produced using CO2 emissions and energy from a geothermal plant, and has been certified as a renewable fuel of non-biological origin. 

In the event of a spill, methanol quickly dissolves in water and biodegrades rapidly making it lower-risk.


Disadvantages of methanol as fuel

Methanol is a dangerous substance with a relatively low flashpoint, toxic when inhaled, ingested, or handled, and it increases the risk of corrosion. These will require additional safety barriers for both the crew and the fuel systems, which could lead to increase costs.

Compared to LNG, there is already a slight cost increase, however as stated Methanol is a simpler transition and therefore those costs are likely to still result in methanol being a more economical choice.

It only shows potential within certain circumstances. These are mainly that MGO prices are high and that the time spent in ECAs for the vessel is a large portion of the total sailing time.

Methanol really needs support is in the logistics of bunkering.Existing bunkers can be converted to handle methanol and onshore storage with only minor modifications due to cryogenic facilities not being required.

To conclude, methanol seems to be an exciting and very promising option with benefits to both the environment and the shipping industry. With enough support and bunkering development Methanol could be a very attractive future marine fuel.