An overview of methanol as fuel
Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, has long been transported as cargo by chemical carriers. Yet methanol has only recently come to prominence for shipowners, shipyards and fuel suppliers as an alternative fuel for limiting vessel emissions.
The potential of methanol to help decarbonize the shipping industry is substantial. The most common production of methanol is from natural gas. This type of methanol reduces several pollutants, including nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulfur oxide (SOx). When produced from renewable sources, such as hydrogen or biomass, methanol can also substantially reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) such as CO2.
However, there are regulatory hurdles to overcome for methanol as fuel. While methanol as a fuel is already used onboard a few chemical carriers, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has yet to define a regulatory framework for its use. A major step has been made with the publication of Interim guidelines for methanol. This is in view of the next step which will be their integration into the IGF Code.
What are the advantages of methanol as fuel?
Methanol offers several advantages as a marine fuel:
- Methanol availability Methanol is a widely traded commodity under the IBC Code, supported by a strong network of existing ports and infrastructure.
- Methanol containment Because methanol is a liquid at ambient temperatures, ships do not need cryogenic or high-pressure containment systems to use methanol as fuel.
- Mature engine technology Methanol handling technology is mature, with two-stroke main engines and four-stroke auxiliary methanol engines already commercially available.
- Carbon-neutral As a substance which can be produced from renewable energy and carbon capture, methanol could be a carbon-neutral fuel.
Director of Development Department
Bureau Veritas M&O
The real hurdle with methanol is greening its production – finding renewable energy that can be used in place of coal or natural gas. Otherwise, shipowners are in a strong position, with all the infrastructure and technology needed to safely store, transport and burn methanol already mature and available.
What are the challenges of methanol as fuel?
Yet methanol also presents some design and safety challenges:
- Methanol storage and handling Operationally, methanol has lower energy content than marine gasoil (MGO), meaning ships using methanol would need cargo tanks 2.5 times larger than their current size.
- Methanol safety Methanol is toxic and flammable with a low-flash point. Methanol vapor dispersion and cloud behavior must also be taken into account and special precautions need to be taken.
- Methanol availability The availability of green methanol at the scale required by the maritime industry has not yet been achieved
Bureau Veritas’ services for methanol-fueled ships
Our methanol Rules and notations
Our experts have developed Classification Rules covering methanol and ethanol fueled ships (NR 670). This provides design and operational requirements to help ship operators meet compliance regulations. Bureau Veritas also offers a METHANOLFUEL-PREPARED notation for vessels constructed or converted to use methanol as fuel.
Supporting methanol pioneers
At Bureau Veritas, we are pioneers of safety and performance, supporting shipowners, shipyards, and technology providers in the safe development and use of alternative fuels. Already leaders in liquefied natural gas (LNG) as fuel, we are using our experience to help the shipping industry de-risk and scale up cleaner fuels. We recently won the classification contract for Singapore’s first dedicated methanol bunkering vessel to facilitate a more sustainable supply chain.
Methanol as fuel FAQs
What is the difference between bio-methanol and e-methanol?
Bio-methanol can be produced from the gasification of biomass, directly from biogas, or via a Kraft process. E-methanol, also known as green methanol, is produced using green hydrogen and CO2. For e-methanol to be completely emissions-free, the CO2 used should come from biogenic sources, such as biomass, DAC, or closed carbon loops.
Is methanol a green fuel?
Methanol may produce carbon emissions, depending on its production method. Brown and grey methanol – made from coal and natural gas, respectively – have high well-to-tank CO2 emissions. Blue methanol, made from blue hydrogen and captured CO2, has comparatively lower emissions, but is not carbon-neutral. Green methanol, produced from biomass or green hydrogen, is carbon-neutral from a well-to-wake perspective.
Are there regulations for using methanol as a marine fuel?
The IMO has developed interim guidelines for the safety of ships using methyl or ethyl alcohol as fuel (MSC.1/Circ.1621). Bureau Veritas also provides classification Rules for methanol-powered ships, including design and operational requirements (NR 670).
Can I use methanol fuel for CII compliance?
While green methanol is being scaled up, it is currently expensive and not yet widely available. In the long-term, methanol may be a strong contender for minimizing ship emissions and helping shipowners meet IMO requirements. In the short-term, however, most vessel owners may not find a benefit from using methanol as fuel to comply with the Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII).
Is methanol expensive as a fuel?
Methanol-powered ships do encounter CAPEX costs related to fuel storage, handling, and power conversion systems. Yet OPEX – which account for the high price of green and blue methanol – are likely to be the greater financial challenge. For clean methanol to become affordable, higher volumes must be produced and made available, at costs equivalent to or lower than MGO, grey methanol, and brown methanol.
Is methanol bunkering available?
Methanol bunkering facilities are widely available, and much existing infrastructure for MGO and heavy fuel oil could easily be modified to provide additional methanol bunkering. While most bunkering is currently done by truck, methanol bunkering vessels are under development, with the first ship-to-ship operation being performed in 2021.