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A leap forward for LNG as a marine fuel?

A leap forward for LNG as a marine fuel?

When it comes to a complete change in marine fuel, history tells us that the forces of conservatism tend to kick in. When coal replaced wind in the world’s merchant fleets, it was a process that would take the best part of a century, while the move from coal to oil was rich in controversy, with the world’s biggest navy bitterly divided as the 20th century dawned.

Where was the infrastructure for oil firing, the more sceptical Lords of the Admiralty demanded to know, just as they had seventy years earlier, scathingly rejected the notion of a warship without sails.

It is curious to see the same arguments reprised as LNG seems poised to make a major impact as a marine fuel. It has been around for the best part of fifty years, during which time it has been burned in the boilers of steam turbine driven LNG carriers which have accomplished some 70,000 laden voyages. More recently it has shown itself as a perfectly safe fuel for large marine diesels in LNG carriers, and aboard a small but significant number of specialist short sea ferries, operating in places where the air is pure and people wish to keep it that way.

LNG is the way to go, say its proponents – look at the price trends, the worldwide availability, the ratcheting up of emission regulations that make traditional alternatives ever more expensive.

Think of the safety considerations from this volatile fuel, caution the conservatives, put this stuff into the hands of your average bunker barge driver and wait for the explosion. And while the sort of organisation that can supply heavy fuel oil around the world’s ports is uncomplicated and cheap as chips, the sort of sophisticated storage and delivery infrastructure that LNG fuel will demand is a very different scenario.

It is so similar to the sort of cut and thrust that was going on between marine opinion formers in 1900, when Marcus Samuel was trying to sell his Shell Borneo oil to the maritime sceptics of his day.

It may all happen faster than many people think. Just two or three years ago, it was confidently suggested that while LNG might be employed in ferry trades, it was unlikely to make any sort of impact in the deep sea operations, for all the arguments listed above. Today, with the impact of US shale gas more apparent, licenses for US LNG export terminals granted and designs for LNG bunkering systems being translated into shipbuilding steel, doubters are becoming less certain. Guidance has been published by SIGGTO to assist LNG carriers in their transits of the improved Panama Canal.

We have a growing number of projects which involve the use of LNG as the primary fuel source in large container ships, tankers and even bulkers. A number of major ports, which include Singapore, Zeebrugge and Rotterdam are finalising their arrangements for LNG bunkering operations. There are firm orders for large ships which will be using these facilities.

There is still a need for public confidence in the safety of LNG afloat, which has remained throughout its life to date in the hands of “blue chip” operators. Close supervision and good regulation, along with real expertise is going to be essential, as this fuel of the future fills the bunker tanks of a current fleet. Above all, some brave deep-sea ship-owner needs to demonstrate a commercial case for LNG and that it all works. In 1902, there was a trial of oil firing in a British battleship that deluged the watching Sea Lords with filthy black smoke and set back development a decade. The smart money is on rather faster acceptance of LNG.

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