A 'new Industrial Revolution': crew on first methanol-powered ship feel weight of history

Sailing on a ship powered by e-methanol comes with extra security precautions

Denmark's Maersk names world's first methanol-fuelled container ship

Denmark's Maersk names world's first methanol-fuelled container ship
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Peter van Rijn never thought that he would be the captain of the world's first methanol-powered vessel, which has been hailed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as a “milestone” in the shipping industry's drive towards decarbonisation.

As he stood on Thursday on the bridge of the Laura Maersk in the port of Copenhagen, Mr van Rijn said that he felt the weight of history as well as the hopes of a new generation that views fighting climate change as one of its top priorities.

“Shipping is quite conservative,” he told reporters on the day of the Laura Maersk's christening, which was attended by Ms von der Leyen and top Maersk executives.

“Now we have made the change, and this change is starting.”

The brand new 172-metre-long vessel, which can carry 21,000 containers weighing a little more than 32,000 tonnes, completed its maiden journey to the Danish port from Ulsen, South Korea, where it was built over the course of two years. It is now expected to be deployed in the Baltic Sea.

The Laura Maersk is named after the Danish shipping firm's first steam-powered vessel that set sail in 1886. Its name was chosen to reflect that it represents “an Industrial Revolution of a green character”, according to Maersk chairman Robert Uggla.

“I have a daughter, she's turning 17, and quite busy thinking about the future,” said Mr van Rijn, 55. “She said to me: what are you doing for the environment? I can give her an example now.”

Last year, Danish shipping giant Maersk unveiled a plan to gradually abandon the use of fuel oil to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the EU as part of the Paris Agreement.

The Laura Maersk will help reduce the firm's carbon dioxide emissions by 100 tonnes a day, compared to the same vessel running on fuel oil, according to the company. Close to 20 other such ships will set sail by 2025.

Most of its crew, including Rounak Chatterjee, the ship's chief officer, shared the captain's excitement, saying there was “no point in being humble”.

“For the rest of time, this will be the first vessel [running on e-methanol] and I'll be the first chief officer on it,” he told The National.

“Human kind is borrowing from this planet.

“So it better start paying the debt back because one day, Mother Nature will come back for the debt and we will have nothing to pay her with.”

New challenges

Green methanol, also known as e-methanol, is composed of waste CO2 and “green hydrogen”, which is created by using renewable energy to split water molecules.

But switching to low-emission fuels comes with new challenges. Maersk's leaders have highlighted that current global production is below the industry's needs, while its cost is two to three times higher than conventional fuels.

Customers willing to pay for a so-called green premium are usually lifestyle companies that are close to customers, and Maersk has recently struck deals with Amazon and Volvo, said the shipping company's head of energy transition Morten Bo Christiansen.

The company is expecting green fuels to become more competitive in the future with new measures kicking in soon, including the EU's carbon tax, which will be enacted from 2027.

There are other challenges related to running a ship on e-methanol, a much more flammable liquid than traditional fuel.

E-methanol can catch fire at 11°C, whereas biodiesel's flame point is about 60°C, said the Laura Maersk's crew.

To avoid risks of fire, the ship's tanks are padded with nitrogen to remove oxygen, said chief engineer Flemming S Christensen.

The vessel also has dual-fuel engines. E-methanol needs to be ignited with a pilot fuel, which on the Laura Maersk is biodiesel.

Maersk currently ships 2.5 per cent of all its containers using biodiesel and wants to bring that figure up to 25 per cent by 2030.

Adapting to an e-methanol run ship was “confusing” at first, but “not that bad” after all for the crew, which benefitted from extra training in Finland, said Mr Christensen.

“Since we started up in Ulsen and until we hit Europe, we have actually been on methanol for 95 per cent of the time, which is – I would say – a huge accomplishment,” he added.

Updated: September 15, 2023, 8:37 AM