The first cargo ship running on green methanol is setting sail

By August 17, 2023Green Methanol, Marine Fuel

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By Adele Peters  2 Minute Read  07-17-23

The fuel is made from methane captured from food waste at landfills. (Photo: Maersk)

As a new container ship sets sail this week, it’s the first to ever run on green methanol—made from methane captured from food waste at landfills.

Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, ordered the ship two years ago as part of a commitment to only buy new ships that can use green fuels. While the ship takes its first voyage over the summer, from South Korea to Denmark, the company already has another 25 of the ships on order, and it’s also beginning to retrofit older ships to use the same fuel. By the end of the decade, the company—which operates more than 700 ships, and owns 300 of them—plans to transport a quarter of its ocean cargo using green fuels.

Green methanol, which can be made either from gas from plant sources like food waste, or from renewable electricity and green hydrogen, can cut a ship’s emissions by 65-70%. Globally, shipping is responsible for around 1 billion tons of CO2 emissions per year, roughly the same as the airline industry.

Since it can’t fully eliminate emissions, green methanol is not a perfect solution. Other technology to cut emissions on ships is also in development, including ammonia, liquid hydrogen, and electrification. But because the industry is a major polluter, and getting on track to meet the Paris climate goals requires immediate action, Maersk chose to move forward with green methanol because it knew it was feasible.

“There’s this fear, I think, of making the wrong bet or getting it wrong somehow,” Morten Bo Christiansen, who leads decarbonization at Maersk, told an audience at the TED Countdown Summit last week. “And of course, in the ideal world, we would spend a decade figuring out all the pros and cons and what is best. But we need to address this problem now.” The industry is aiming to hit a goal of net zero by 2050, though Maersk wants to reach it a decade earlier.

Three years ago, he says, no ships of this type were on order. Now five other major carriers are also buying them, with 120 ships in the works. The next challenge is scaling up production of the fuel and bringing down the cost, which is currently two or even three times more expensive than conventional fuel. Still, he says, if the extra cost trickles down, the impact could be relatively small—for a pair of sneakers crossing the ocean, for example, switching to green fuel might mean paying an extra five cents.