LNG as fuel: Managing change through training

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating” is a saying that applies precisely to the use of LNG as a vessel fuel, something that has gained a considerable foothold in global shipping. Having overcome disagreements about its green credentials, this fossil-derived gaseous fuel is here to stay and will maintain – and will surely enhance – its place as a primary energy source well into the net zero emission future.

Despite the recent pandemic and record LNG prices, investment has surged. The numbers say it all, according to Alternative Fuel Insight, the platform developed by the classification society DNV. At the end of last year LNG-fuelled new builds on order exceeded 240, completely outnumbering 48 LPG-fuelled new builds, with just 22 for methanol and four for hydrogen. Alongside this great expansion in LNG-fuelled tonnage, the global LNG bunkering fleet has risen to 35, from 27 in 2020, with some 24 more such vessels on order. This is clear proof that LNG is increasingly achieving recognition as part of the progress towards a cleaner environment. 

There have been some concerns about what is known as “methane slip”, which is unburned LNG escaping into the environment as methane, a very significant greenhouse gas (GHG). Taking a ballpark figure, one gram equivalent of methane is about 30 such of GHG.

The shipbuilding industry has already introduced technologies that curb methane risk. Leading manufacturer Wärtsilä claims to have reduced it in LNG dual-fuelled engines by more than 70% over the last 25 years. With its visible pathway to a net zero future, major shipowners also view changing to LNG as the most practical way to lower emissions immediately. 

Furthermore, research indicates that the volumetric energy densities of liquid ammonia and liquid hydrogen are only about 40-50% of that of LNG. Thus, vessels would need to sacrifice more revenue-earning cargo space to store and burn liquid ammonia or hydrogen, as compared to LNG, a disadvantage that becomes more serious over longer voyages. In any case, it seems to be agreed that the infrastructure needed for ammonia and hydrogen to power up shipping “cradle to grave” will take many years to develop. In general terms, the concept of fuel combusting inside an engine, which in turn propels a ship, is not a straightforward one, and (just judging by the experience already gained with LNG) such progress with ammonia and hydrogen will take time. 

Marine use of LNG has developed slowly, beginning with coastal shipping, and then small tankers, all using LNG trucks for bunkering, and now we have ship-to-ship transfers for ocean-going tonnage. The emission reductions are obvious: burning LNG instead of fuel oil can slash sulphur emission by 99%, and NOx and CO2 emission by 90% and 20% respectively.

To meet Paris agreement goals, many countries are increasingly adopting net zero targets on carbon emissions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw an encouraging number of such emissions announcements, from three of the top ten CO2-emitting countries. These are China, which announced it would become carbon-neutral by 2060, Japan and South Korea, which are aiming for net zero by 2050.

Globally LNG demand is estimated to hit 700 million tonnes by 2040. Asia is expected to drive nearly 75% of this growth, as domestic gas production declines and LNG replaces higher emission energy sources, meeting emissions targets. 

For instance, in 2020 China’s heavy-duty transport sector consumed nearly 13 million tonnes of LNG, almost doubling from 2018, in its fast-growing fleet of well over 500,000 LNG-fuelled trucks and buses. As demand grows, a supply-demand gap is expected to open in the middle of the current decade.

For example, to attain that status, South Korea aims to reduce its dependence on coal and increase the share of gas and renewables. South Korea is expected to switch 24 coal-fired power plants to LNG by 2034. Projections to 2040 show that gas and renewables together make up 74% of total energy growth. As demand grows, a supply-demand gap is expected to open in the middle of the current decade. Demand is projected to grow by over 1,200 billion cubic metres in the next two decades. According to estimates, more than half of future LNG demand will come from countries with net zero emissions targets. 

Plainly, moving this greatly developing energy source from one part of the world to another requires ships, which in turn need to be LNG-fuelled in order to be able to help lessen GHGs. We now have STS LNG bunkering to support ocean-going vessels. It is available at key chokepoints in world trade, presenting the visibility needed in order to spur yet further construction of LNG-fuelled tonnage.

Shipping’s experience with LNG has shown that by proactively investing in future fuels and the appropriate technologies, industries are better placed to absorb the increased costs and other disruption associated with necessarily transitioning to a net zero future.

A final word on the key role of training.

The shipping industry is of the utmost importance to uninhibited global trade, and the quality of those on board is vital in order to have safe, incident-free operations. 

According to Van Dersal (1962), training is the process of teaching, informing, or educating people so that they can (1) become qualified to do their job and (2) perform in positions of greater difficulty and responsibility, and what has since become known as a “training intervention” is a sequence of programmes aimed at delivering knowledge and skills over a set duration.

MOL Synergy Marine (Singapore) Pte. Ltd. (“MOL Synergy”) is a joint venture between Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd and the Synergy Group, which was established in 2014 to provide ship management and crew training services.

At MOL Synergy, simulator-based training provides an opportunity to apply theory and gain experience in skills and procedures, giving trainees the confidence to manage real-life scenarios. Such training enhances seafarers’ role-specific skills, capabilities, and knowledge, and moulds their thinking towards safety. 

In the precise context of the emerging importance of LNG, since the start of the LNG Bunkering Course at MOL Synergy last year 230+ of our seagoing-staff have been trained. Training gives additional and intangible benefits, too, and (especially with these still developing technologies) it should be continuous – and thus a form of in-built insurance – in aid of minimising and as far as possible preventing incidents, both on board, and also between, vessels.

Sources:

  1. Shell Bulletin
  2. CNBCTV18

About the author:

Dr Sairam K is presently the Assistant Manager – Technical (Training) with MOL SYN training center. He was a sailing Chief Engineer with Great Eastern and has over 16 years of experience in teaching. He has completed his research into fuels and authored technical articles in peer-reviewed international journals. “God is in the details” is his belief.