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Shipping Industry Could Replace Diesel Fuel With Ammonia to Reduce Emissions

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Large storage tank of Ammonia at a fertilizer plant in Cubatão, Sao Paulo State, Brazil. Luis Veiga / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The shipping industry is coming to grips with its egregious carbon footprint, as it has an outsized contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and to the dumping of chemicals into open seas. Already, the global shipping industry contributes about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, about the same as Germany, as the BBC reported.


In its efforts to clean up its act, the industry is looking to stop burning diesel and is exploring using ammonia as its fuel source. When ammonia burns, it does not create carbon dioxide emissions, as the BBC reported.

Recently, the European Union awarded just over $11 million to the ShipFC project, which is composed of 14 firms looking to make maritime shipping a bit greener. The money will be used to outfit a shipping vessel used by Norwegian energy company Equinor that has been running on diesel for 17 years with ammonia fuel cells, as CNBC reported.

"Together with Equinor, we are now launching a full-scale research project to test a propulsion solution based on fuel cells running on pure and emission-free ammonia," Jan Fredrik Meling, who is the CEO of Eidesvik Offshore, which made the ship, said according to CNBC.

"The goal is to install fuel cell modules with a total power of 2 MW (megawatts) on board Viking Energy in 2024," he added. "This will make the vessel the world's first emission-free supply vessel."

One of the hang-ups right now is that making ammonia is actually a huge source of carbon emissions, according to a report from the Royal Society. Ammonia production actually accounts for 1.8 percent of global CO2 emissions, which is by far the most of any chemical, as the BBC reported.

While producing ammonia is carbon-intensive, scientists believe that a cleaner, carbon-free way to produce ammonia will happen soon, either by trapping CO2 and burying it or by creating 'green' ammonia, according to the Royal Society report.

"We see a very big interest from the market in ammonia as a fuel – even though there are challenges," Peter Kirkeby, a spokesman for Man Energy Solutions, which is making ammonia powered engines, said to the BBC. "We expect the first ships fuelled with ammonia will be existing tankers that are already transporting ammonia for fertilizer. They know how to handle it."

Some of the largest names in shipping are getting behind the effort to use the fertilizer by-product as an alternative to shipping fuel. Recently, Korean Register, which verifies and certifies ships worldwide, touted ammonia as a viable clean energy since it does not require a large amount of technical expertise to use as fuel.

"The strength of ammonia is that it is relatively easy to store due to the rational energy, density and liquefaction temperature compared to hydrogen, the production and transport costs are lower compared to other carbon-neutral fuels, and has the technology for stable production and transport," a Korean Register technical report said, as Seatrade Maritime News reported.

However, there are still caveats. For example, ammonia does not burn as efficiently as diesel. It also creates nitrogen oxides, which are greenhouse gasses. However, the Royal Society report is optimistic that technology will address those problems, according to the BBC.

"Ammonia is the only zero-carbon fuel that will get you across the oceans," said the Royal Society's lead author, Bill David, as the BBC reported. And yet, he added, "In terms of emissions from industrial processes, ammonia comes only after cement and steel, so we need to decarbonize the production of ammonia."

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