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9 November 2022

Maersk, the first shipping giant to adopt hydrogen from 2023

Maersk, one of the world’s largest container shipping lines, has signed a General Protocol of Collaboration with the Spanish Government in order to explore the possibility of large-scale green methanol (CH3OH) production for use as fuel for its cargo vessels.

Until 2021 Maersk was the world’s largest shipping line by cargo capacity. A 25-year reign ended by MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) when Alphaliner’s statistics showed that MSC had a capacity of 4.2 million containers – 2,000 containers more than Maersk at the time.

As part of an industry that emits 940 million tons of CO2 per year – 2.5% of global carbon emissions – Maersk is now looking to source up to a third of its predicted fuel requirements in the form of methanol from Spain. The maritime shipping industry is perhaps one of the last few to start heading towards decarbonization, alongside aviation. The two were the only industries that didn’t show up at the 2015 Paris Agreement because back in the day they thought they were too big and too important for climate related plans. Now they are paying the price. More on how the aviation industry is scrambling for solutions can be accessed here.

If the agreement is implemented in full, Maersk will source up to two million tons per year of e-methanol, made from renewable hydrogen – hence the ‘e’ in e-methanol – per year from Spanish producers, helping it towards the six million tons of the fuel it needs to meet its 2030 fleet emissions reductions target.

Maersk has plans to bring 19 methanol-fuelled ships into operation between 2023 and 2025. Methanol is gaining in popularity among other green fuels aimed to replace oil, because it is much less toxic than ammonia. Burning methanol instead of fossil fuels will reduce nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions and eliminate sulphur oxide (SOx) emissions. But all this is only relevant if the methanol is produced sustainably. Conventionally produced methanol only reduces well-to-wake carbon emissions by around 7% but burning green methanol has the potential to reduce emissions by up to 90%.

Methanol is also liquid at room temperature, making it easier to handle and transport, unlike ammonia and hydrogen which need to be stored at minus  temperatures in their liquid forms. Methanol also has a higher volumetric energy density of 16MJ/L – closer than ammonia and liquid hydrogen to the 22.5MJ/L of natural gas.

The Danish shipping giant intends to use green methanol in order to reduce its emissions and has chosen Spain due to its capacity of producing cheap green hydrogen. Producers in the Iberian Peninsula – Spain and Portugal – claim that they can manufacture green hydrogen for as low as $4.5/kg, undercutting grey hydrogen – hydrogen produced from natural gas – from Europe, due to the high price of natural gas. Another factor contributing to this is the abundance of wind speeds and solar irradiance (up to 2,200 kWh/m2) in the area.

“We are living in a climate emergency, and we need to rapidly accelerate the availability of green future fuels. We are very pleased to explore green fuel opportunities with the Spanish Government, as the country holds key characteristics to help solve this challenge with its great hydrogen ambitions and aspiring sustainability goals. At the same time, Spain encompasses significant renewable resources and is placed along key shipping routes. ” This is what the CEO of Maersk, Soren Skou, had to say regarding the deal.

More on the different means of hydrogen distribution and the most efficient and cost-effective ways of storing and shipping it can be accessed in our research paper titled Pipelines and organic carrier ships to dominate hydrogen distribution.