Air QualityDevelopmentEnvironment & ClimateFossil FuelsHeavy Duty & Off-highwayMarine & heavy dutySustainability

Is Ammonia (NH3) a viable zero emissions future fuel for marine vessels, container & cargo ships?

By January 13, 2022 No Comments

Despite advances being made in battery electric applications for cars, vans & some trucks; the heavy duty sectors still have some considerable challenges ahead with practical range, payload & cost.

With there being no single economically viable decarbonised solution for heavy duty ground vehicles, alternative zero emissions future fuels are needed to meet global decarbonisation targets.

With nearly 90% of global goods being shipped in cargo containers, this is still the cheapest method of moving goods, making it very appealing to global companies.

Global shipping produces approximately 3% of global CO2 emissions. Container ships currently & predominantly still run on ‘bunker fuel’ producing carbon dioxide & black carbon, a fine particulate that can absorb a million times the energy of CO2.

However, commercial marine vessels have additional issues to contend with, namely long service lives with bulk carriers, tankers & container ships the main contributors to GHG’s.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has, as part of their GHG Strategy, set a reduction in carbon intensity of international shipping (to reduce CO2 emissions per transport work, as an average across international shipping, by at least 40% by 2030, pursuing efforts towards 70% by 2050, compared to 2008); and that total annual GHG emissions from international shipping should be reduced by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008. (1)

Until recently, most ocean-going ships used HFO to power their engines. The fuel was so popular that according to the IMO made up 86% of international ship fuel used. Since the mid-19th century, HFO has been a logical choice for ships because it is very high in energy — so a little takes a ship a long way. (2)

With sulphur reductions continuing from the mid 19thC, the concern over the CO2 emissions, coupled with black carbon have continued. “Black carbon”, particles which absorb sunlight while airborne, contribute to global warming by decreasing the amount of solar energy reflected into space (the albedo effect) & increase the rate of ice melt in polar regions.  (2)

With this in mind, research & development around the globe is forging new ways to fuel commercial marine vessels & in doing so reduce emissions to the levels set by the IMO. The challenges this poses are considerable, as there is no single economically viable decarbonised solution for heavy duty vehicles & vessels.

Although hydrogen is being hailed as a heavy duty future sustainable fuel in certain sectors, it is Ammonia (NH3) which is being developed as an alternative to HFO in the marine sector & as a zero emissions potential net zero game changer.

Ammonia having been shipped as bulk cargo for some 100 years, means that the marine industry is familiar with its use & handling.

However, there are still a handful of challenges that the marine industry must overcome before shipowners can safely use ammonia as fuel. These range from questions of risk & safety, to regulatory concerns & assessing all aspects of ammonia’s sustainability as a fuel. (3)

With the need for further data & development of a stable, sustainable & readily available source of ammonia for shipping & marine vessels; there are a host of research & development programmes being undertaken worldwide.

The University of Nottingham Faculty of engineering UK are running research programmes to establish the viability of ammonia as a marine fuel.

One of their projects, seeks to determine the energy & air quality impacts & potential future applications of a novel ammonia-fuelled heavy duty IC engine operating with high efficiency (c.50% brake) & zero emissions through a new fast burning combustion system. (4)

The project will evaluate potential reductions in energy demand in the ‘green’ ammonia production process, making use of the new green ammonia pilot plant at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. In order to assess relative advantages & challenges, the project will undertake evidence based life cycle analysis across a spectrum of competing decarbonised powertrain technologies for long range heavy duty transport (ground, freight rail and marine).(4)

Another project having been awarded a £5M investment from UKRI Innovate UK Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, focuses specifically on the development of ‘Decarbonised Clean Marine: Green Ammonia Thermal Propulsion (MariNH3)’

Dolphin N2, alongside 18 other partners & working with a host of university professors, aim to overcome the key related technical, economic & social unknowns of the development of green ammonia (NH3) through flexible, multidisciplinary research set around disruptive NH3 engine concepts capable of high thermal efficiency & ultra low NOx. (5)

Ammonia (NH3) has excellent potential to play a significant role as a sustainable future fuel in both retrofitted & advanced engines. Significant uncertainties remain around safe & effective end use, with these unknowns spanning across fundamental understanding, effective application & acceptance. (5)

The goal is to accelerate understanding, technologies and ultimately policies which are appropriately scaled and “right first time”. (5)

All of the UK research & development programmes are in alignment with the UK Government Clean Growth Strategy, Clean Air Strategy & Maritime 2050, with projects examining a novel solution for full decarbonisation of the marine sector, alongside the need to decarbonise heavy duty.

Written & cited by Katy-Jane Mason for & on behalf of Dolphin N2.