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When it comes to environmental protection, most of the discussion revolves around planes and cars. But 90 percent of all commodities travel by ship. It is time for the maritime energy transition - to eliminate fossil fuels from shipping.

By Anke Henrich

A fragile beauty measuring 9,000 square kilometers: The Wadden Sea area of the North Sea, the largest mudflats in the world, are flooded twice a day at high tide, before being completely revealed at low tide. The wind competes with the calls of thousands of sea birds. But this fragile ecosystem is also criss-crossed by thousands of giant container ships and ferries every year on their way to the largest ports and rivers of the surrounding countries. They pollute the water and the air with sulfur oxides, particulates, nitrogen oxides, soot, heavy metals, ash and sediments.

The Wadden Sea World Heritage Site wants to change that. In future, for example, natural gas-powered catamaran ferries with mobile 16-cylinder gas engines will reduce harmful emissions. It has been developed by MTU/Rolls Royce Power Systems, based in Friedrichshafen. "Our goal is to develop drive systems that produce fewer carbon dioxide emissions, meaning they become ever more climate-neutral," says Dr. Daniel Chatterjee, Head of the Green and High-Tech program at MTU. Thanks to optimized combustion and the use of filters and catalysts for diesel engines, the particle mass in the gas engines for the Wadden Sea is already below detectable limits.

Aiming for a competitive advantage

While discussions in Europe are increasingly focused on photovoltaics and wind energy, the energy transition on the water and the drive technology involved is still flying under the radar of the general public. Yet figures from the international classification company DNV GL show just how urgent this technical progress is. Its recent study "Maritime Forecast to 2050" investigates the impact the future energy supply will have on shipping. The current situation: In 2018, around 40,000 trade ships transported around 11.1 billion tons of goods, or around 90 percent of global goods traffic. Shipping is responsible for the emission of around one billion tons of carbon dioxide worldwide. The forecast: As a method of goods transport, shipping will continue to enjoy robust growth until the year 2030, after which and until 2050, demand will grow moderately, especially for raw materials and container freight. Diesel will remain the most important fuel in 2050, followed by natural gas. Improved utilization, lower fuel consumption, larger ships and new digital business models are all becoming increasingly important for ships' life cycle assessment. Countries that are proactive in this field may gain a competitive advantage. Germany has a leading position to defend here, as the German shipbuilding supply industry is the world’s leading exporter with foreign business making up 73 percent of its sales.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has an ambitious goal: to reduce maritime greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent compared to 2008 levels. Given that the amount of global shipping is expected to grow even further, that is an even greater challenge than it would initially appear. Experts say that this target cannot be reached with current technology.

The IMO's agenda is therefore to push the maritime energy transition. On the one hand, traditional engine construction is to be developed further from an ecological standpoint, and the construction of gas engines and hybrid technology advanced. On the other, the industry is turning to "power-to-X" technology, meaning regenerative fuels. The idea is for e-fuels gained from renewable energies to replace fossil fuels, thus halving greenhouse gas emissions. "The power-to-X process is a huge step towards halting shipping’s reliance on fossil fuels. The IMO’s underlying decision to reduce CO2 emissions is a milestone in the introduction of e-Fuels, as the goals cannot be reached without switching to this technology," says Peter Müller-Baum, Managing Director Engines and Systems at VDMA.

Size matters

A ship's size is crucial when it comes to deciding which technology to use. Battery technology is only sufficient for small ships and small distances - ferries could use it, for example. Fuel cell technology could be used to power larger ships, but it is still not sufficient for the giant container ships or bulkers. That is where power-to-X technology comes in. None of these fuels is cheap.

So how can shipping companies ensure that their investment in environmentally friendly technologies pays off? "The most efficient and transparent approach would be an international CO2 price," says Müller-Baum. "This is however a huge challenge for an international market where regional solutions are senseless,"says Müller-Baum. Although this question is the subject of international discussion no conclusion has yet been reached.

The Federal Government has also recognized the necessity of zero-emissions shipping. Employing around 63,000 people in around 400 companies, the German shipbuilding and offshore supply industry generated annual turnover of 10.7 billion EUR in 2018. The Federal Government is helping this industry by providing a further 45 million EUR of research funding over the next four years. Norbert Brackmann, Maritime Coordinator for the Federal Government, is delighted. "One example that shows how successful targeted funding can be is the world's first cruise ship to use liquid natural gas (LNG) as fuel. That ship was built in Germany. Promoting research through tax breaks is another instrument that can help R&D-intensive companies in particular to assert their position on the global market."

The atmosphere among maritime engine constructors is almost euphoric, he says. That is good news - and not just for the Wadden Sea.

Further Information

VDMA Engines and Systems   |   VDMA Marine Equipment and Systems

Peter Müller-Baum, VDMA Engines and Systems.