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electric container ship Yara green ammonia hydrogen
Yara drew the media spotlight for its new electric container ship, but the company's behind-the-scenes green ammonia ventures could be far more consequential (photo courtesy of Yara).

Autonomous Vehicles

Electric Cargo Ships Vs. Green Ammonia: Yara’s Got ‘Em Both

Yara turned heads with its new electric container ship, but the company’s green ammonia ventures could be far more consequential.

The Intertubes have been aflame all weekend with news of a new zero emission, all-electric cargo vessel introduced by the leading firm Yara. The new container ship is also autonomous, which is also of interest considering that labor shortages have taken part of the blame for the global shipping and supply chain crisis. Even more interesting is Yara’s interest in the green ammonia field, but that hasn’t gotten nearly as much press — yet.

One Electric Container Ship To Rule Them All

The new electric container ship, dubbed Yara Birkeland, set out on her maiden voyage in the fjord of Oslo, Norway, last Friday, with the aim of ferrying fertilizer from Yara’s production facility at Porsgrunn to a port at Brevik for export overseas.

CleanTechnica first caught wind of design plans for the all-electric ship back in 2017, so this has been a long time coming.

Though Yara Birkeland is relatively small in size, it could have a big impact on regional carbon emissions. Yara anticipates that it will replace 40,000 diesel truck trips annually, which adds up to about 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Of course, the diesel emissions angle will be a moot point whenever electrification hits the global truck manufacturing industry in full force, but that will take some time.

On the other hand, electrifying the container ship industry will also take some time. Yara anticipates that it will be two years before the Yara Birkland achieves fully certified status as a zero emission, autonomous container ship.

The Challenge Of Carbon-Free Cargo Shipping

On the other-other hand, truck congestion on the highways is both a sustainability and a bottom line issue, regardless of what comes out of the tailpipe. Congestion translates into additional maintenance and repair costs, increased risk of accidents, and increased labor costs, too.

Yara’s electric container ship is partly meant to ease traffic on roadways in the region, and it could be replicated in other areas where marine routes provide an alternative to highway traffic jams.

Marine electrification has been moving along on other fronts, too, with solar powered research vessels and electric ferries being just two examples.

Oceangoing cargo ships are a whole different kettle of fish, considering the enormous size and long distances involved. Unless we missed something, the all-electric oceangoing container ship of the future is a long way off.

Nevertheless, some baby steps have been taking place, with a focus on supplementing conventional fuel with renewable energy. Some recent developments in that area include cylindrical sails that resemble smokestacks, and rigid sails that double as solar energy devices.

Green Ammonia To Power Up The Lower-Carbon Cargo Ship Of The Future

As a leading global cargo shipper and a fertilizer producer to boot, Yara has a front-and-center window on the green ammonia trend as it relates to oceangoing container ships.

Ammonia is a fuel as well as a fertilizer. The main feedstock for the global ammonia supply today is natural gas, which is a bummer. However, the explosive growth of the green hydrogen market is opening up a more sustainable pathway for ammonia.

For those of you new to the topic, ammonia is a 1-to-3 compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. The nitrogen can be sourced from ambient air, but sustainable alternatives to the hydrogen part of the equation were elusive until recent years, when investor dollars began pouring into new technology that deploys clean power to pry hydrogen out of water, biogas, wastewater and other non-fossil sources.

Yara has already set the wheels in motion to electrify its Porsgrunn plant and produce green ammonia at commercial scale, taking advantage of hydropower resources to make the green hydrogen.

For some insights into green ammonia activity here in the US, keep an eye on the leading fertilizer firm CF, which is based in Louisiana, which is eyeballing the Gulf of Mexico for new offshore wind farms that could provide the clean power to produce green hydrogen for green ammonia.

The US Department of Energy is also cooking up a scheme for small-scale, distributed green hydrogen systems that would enable farmers to produce their own ammonia on site, leveraging wind power.

Green Ammonia, Meet…Green Methanol?

Cargo ship builders are already beginning to plan for their future fleets to accommodate green ammonia, and researchers are plowing ahead with R&D leading to commercially viable fuel cells that run on ammonia instead of hydrogen.

While all that is going on, the shipping industry is already pivoting towards yet another decarbonization pathway.

Last August shipping giant A.P. Moller – Maersk booked an order of 8 new oceangoing cargo ships that will run on carbon neutral methanol, which apparently is now a thing.

In terms of scale, Yara’s electric boat is a speck on the ocean compared to the new vessels, each of which will be capable of carrying 16,000 standard shipping containers. Plans for another 4 methanol ships are already under way.

Doing the math, that makes 12 in all. They will replace older ships, for an anticipated savings of approximately 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. That sounds pretty good, but with a fleet of more than 700 vessels in operation, Maersk has a long way to go.

Also, the supply of carbon neutral methanol needs to catch up. The plan is to install dual fuel capability so the new ships can run on conventional low-sulfur fuel as well as methanol, and transition into methanol as available.

Other shippers are already eyeballing a future scenario in which container ships with dual-fuel capability could run on green ammonia or green methanol.

The common denominator is green hydrogen, and legacy industrial firms like thyssenkrupp are all over it like white on rice.

“The technology for synthesizing renewable methanol from hydrogen and carbon dioxide in small-scale plants was developed in an exclusive partnership between thyssenkrupp and Swiss Liquid Future AG (SLF),” the company explains.

“The hydrogen is produced by means of the proprietary and highly efficient alkaline water electrolysis (AWE) process which is based on the proven chlor-alkali electrode technology developed by thyssenkrupp Uhde Chlorine Engineers. The carbon dioxide is recovered from biogas or other fermentation plants, flue gas or waste gas,” thyssenkrupp adds, noting that electricity for running these processes is sourced from wind power, geothermal energy or hydropower.

There being no such thing as a free lunch, thyssenkrupp emphases that “green methanol technology makes particular sense in countries where there is plenty of renewable power as well as a legal framework that further[s] renewable energy and its conversion into chemicals.”

So, whatever happened to making methanol from methane, aka natural gas? The natural gas price spike has taken the glow off that idea. Meanwhile, the cost of renewable energy keeps going down, down, raising the prospects for green hydrogen, green ammonia, green methanol, and all the rest of those greens to compete on cost with their fossil-enabled counterparts.

All this is by way of saying that the massive task of decarbonizing the global shipping industry does not rest upon the shoulders of one new high tech, autonomous electric boat plying a coastal route, however much media attention that may grab.

Instead, the green shipping industry of the future is looking more like the same old boats, but with high tech fuels.

Or, as Yara puts it, “green ammonia holds potential to play a significant role in decarbonizing maritime transport if investors and operators are presented with a credible business model.”

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: all-electric, zero emission cargo ship courtesy of Yara.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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