Shipping companies and governments are learning all they can about the pros and cons of using liquefied natural gas, which can cut carbon dioxide emissions by up to 25 per cent.
Global shipping hopes to gas up
Poor world shipping industry - staring down the twin barrels of rising oil prices and impending global and draconian emissions legislation and left scrabbling about for greener, cheaper ways to power its ships.
And then along comes LNG, liquefied natural gas, a tricky hydrocarbon offshoot product, hard to handle, but with its good points.
Using LNG as marine fuel, for example, all but eliminates the emission of sulphur and nitrogen oxides and other particulate matter, and cuts carbon dioxide emissions by up to 25 per cent.
Suddenly, ports, shipping companies and governments are all wanting to know more.
Until now, the world's merchant fleet, which moves 90 per cent of the world's trade, has relied on fuel that is basically oil sludge - the unwanted dregs of the oil refining process that has been cheap but very dirty.
However, with the rising price of oil, bunker fuel is no longer cheap; and as the world goes greener, "very dirty" won't wash.
The industry is predicting bunkering prices will hit an all-time high this year of US$690 (Dh2,534) per tonne, compared with an average $664.10 a tonne last year, which even then was the highest in at least a decade.
Today, with most ships steaming at reduced speeds to conserve fuel, the largest oil tankers can still burn 40 tonnes of bunker fuel a day and the largest ore carriers 35 tonnes. (The word "bunkering" harks back to the days when ships ran on coal, which they stored in on-board bunkers.)
Since January 1, amendments to the United Nations International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Marpol regulationshave required shipping lines to start cutting their emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. The aim is to prevent the industry's share of global carbon emissions from climbing from 2007 levels of 3.3 per cent to 18 per cent in 2050 if emission levels were to continue rising at their current rate.
In response, a number of ports are to develop LNG bunkering facilities, including one in Sweden and others at Antwerp and Zeebrugge in Belgium, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Singapore. Finland and Poland are interested. Also, shipping companies are ordering LNG-powered ships.
"There are now 34 LNG-powered vessels … in service, while the same number … are on order," says the naval architect Mike Corkhill, who is also the editor of the online publication LNG World.
"Although the take-up for the LNG option to date has been relatively modest, the pace at which gas-powered ships are being ordered is accelerating. Ten such vessels had been completed by the end of last year and in 2013 a total of 21 LNG-powered ships are due to be delivered.
"[But] in a classic case of the chicken-and-egg dilemma, investors have been reluctant to sanction the provision of an LNG bunkering network in the absence of sufficient gas-powered ships," Mr Corkhill says
"Similarly, ship owners have been loath to nominate gas propulsion systems for their vessels in the absence of the required LNG supply infrastructure.
"[However], the growing interest in LNG bunkering arrangements on the part of port authorities, governments, bunker suppliers and ship owners is evidence that the momentum for a bottleneck breakthrough is building to a critical level," he says.
But LNG is not proving to be a "magic bullet" when it comes to solving shipping's bunkering problems. For a start, it has to be kept at a temperature of -162°C to remain liquid, and that makes handling it tricky.
Also, there is that chicken and egg circle to be broken.
Leading ship classification societies such as the United Kingdom's Lloyd's Register, Germany's Germanischer Lloyd and Norway's Det Norske Veritassay LNG is a viable alternative to conventional marine fuels, although there are "buts".
At the Gastech 2012 Conference, Lloyd's Register released a report titled "LNG fuelled deep-sea shipping - Outlook for LNG bunker and fuelled newbuilding demand up to 2025", its study into the future demand for LNG as a fuel.
"We have the in-depth capability to handle the technology and the risk issues associated with gas, but we wanted to be able to help our clients understand what will be driving industry adoption," says Hector Sewell, the head of marine business development for Lloyd's Register.
"We were most interested in the deep-sea trades as these are responsible for most of the world's tonnage, emissions and fuel bills."
The study found widespread adoption of LNG as fuel would be driven by price, the growth of alternative fuels and the degree of global collaboration. Its base-case scenario predicted that, by 2025, there could be 653 deep-sea, LNG-fuelled ships in service, consuming 24 million tonnes of LNG annually - most likely containerships, cruise vessels or oil tankers.
When the study modelled relatively cheap LNG - for example, priced at 25 per cent lower than current market rates - the projected number of LNG-fuelled ships tripled to about 1,960 ships in 2025. If the cost of LNG increased 25 per cent against current prices, hardly any new LNG-powered tonnage was projected to hit the water.
"LNG is unlikely to simply replace heavy fuel oil," says Mr Sewell.
"The most likely first movers could be the big containership operators who are able to bunker at two ports at either end of a liner trade route, such as in Rotterdam and Singapore or Shanghai," he says.
"This might take years. Or it may happen tomorrow."
Also, there is the need to invest in infrastructure, says Latifat Ajala, Lloyd's Register's senior market analyst, who built the dynamic demand model for the study.
"Yes, price is a key. But it's going to be all about collaboration. There has to be a group of stakeholders who want it to happen," she says.
"Political will and commercial ambition combined with environmental objectives and regulations have driven the modest take-up so far.
"There is no global market for LNG bunkers, so local or regional initiatives, investment, environmental and fiscal policy all have a part to play. Ship owners who are serious about using LNG as bunker fuel may need to cut their own supply deals and lock in prices for years ahead."
In December, the US shipping company Totem Ocean Trailer Express signed the first-ever contract to build LNG-powered containerships, with the shipbuilders General Dynamics Nassco of San Diego.The deal is for up to five 3,100 teu (twenty-foot equivalent unit containers) ships and, once completed, the 250-metre vessels would be the largest in the world to be primarily powered by LNG.
Construction of the first containership is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of next year, with delivery expected by the fourth quarter of 2015. The second ship is expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2016.
And last month the shipping company signed another deal to design the conversion of two of its 10-year-old Orca Class roll-on, roll-off ships from diesel-electric to LNG propulsion.
Global shipping may prove to be a gas after all.