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Just in Time: LNG Propulsion Coming of Age

By William DiBenedetto, CBN Feature Editor

When TOTE’s Isla Bella, the world’s first LNG-powered container vessel, transited through the Panama Canal late last month it marked a major milestone for an industry that needs answers both to cope with the cost of fuel and to become more environmentally-friendly.

The 764-foot, 3,100-TEU Isla Bella (pictured) is equipped with the world's first dual-fuel slow-speed engine, an 8L70ME-GI built by Korea's Doosan Engine, under license from MAN Diesel & Turbo. The vessel’s LNG plant reduces NOx emissions by 98 percent, SOx emissions by 97 percent and CO2 emissions by 76 percent.

Even if bunker fuel prices remain at their current low level, those impressive emissions reduction numbers alone should make maritime operators take notice, because more stringent climate change standards are always on the way.

The future is now for LNG propulsion. A recent MAN report, which looked into the "Costs and Benefits of LNG as Ship Fuel for Container Vessels" says the use of LNG as ship fuel "promises a lower emission level and, given the right circumstances, lower fuel costs." The attractiveness of LNG as a ship fuel compared to installed scrubber systems on existing vessel engines is dominated by three parameters, MAN continues:
• Investment costs for LNG tank system
• Price difference between LNG and Heavy Fuel
  Oil (HFO)
• Share of operation inside Emission Control
  Areas (ECA).

There are four ECAs in effect: the Baltic Sea since May 2006, the North Sea since November 2007, North America (US and Canada) since August 2011, and U.S. Caribbean since January 2013. The effects of Annex VI of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) sulfur reductions and initiatives to adopt lower sulfur fuels have been largely limited to the ECAs. That’s likely to become global very soon, however.

The use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as ship fuel has gained more attention in Europe, but also in Asia and the USA, especially now with TOTE’s Isla Bella.

There are several drivers for this, "which, taken together, make LNG as ship fuel one of the most promising new technologies for shipping," the report continues. One is that the use of LNG ship fuel will reduce sulfur oxide emissions by 90-95%, a level already mandated within ECAs; a similar reduction will be enforced for worldwide shipping by 2020.

Another driver, according to MAN, is that LNG is expected to be less costly than marine gas oil (MGO) which will be required to be used within the ECAs if no other technical measures are implemented to reduce the SOx emissions. "Current low LNG prices in Europe and the USA suggest that a price – based on energy content – comparable to heavy fuel oil (HFO) seems possible, even when taking into account the small scale distribution of the LNG."

MAN’s conclusion is that LNG, as a ship fuel, has "become a reality in international shipping."

According to a recent paper, "LNG as Marine Fuel," by Frederick Adamchak, LNG advisor at Poten & Partners, LNG has been used to fuel diesel propulsion systems of LNG vessels since delivery of the Provalys in 2006.

Today 48 existing LNG ships operate with dual fuel and tri-fuel diesel electric propulsion, he wrote, and another 85 LNG ships are on order. "In view of the proven success of LNG as a fuel in marine diesel engines, ship owners have already constructed an estimated 30 LNG fueled ships and have ordered more than 30 additional LNG fueled ships."

Thus, given the potential advantages of LNG as a bunker fuel and the pace of recent developments, "the probability of LNG displacing oil as the preferred fuel will continue to increase."

That’s why in terms of containerships operations, the Isla Bella is so pioneering. Actually, it is the first of two Marlin Class container vessels contracted by TOTE Maritime and built by General Dynamics NASSCO in partnership with the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Isla Bella is providing freight service between Jacksonville, FL and San Juan, PR. The Perla del Caribe, the second Marlin Class containership, was launched in August and will enter service in the first quarter of 2016. Once Perla del Caribe is completed, the boxships will be the largest and most environmentally friendly LNG-powered dry cargo ships in the world.

LNG is no longer a potential solution for meeting fuel and emission requirements, it has arrived.