Maersk new feeder vessel_july2023_6910_mid

So what is all this noise about methanol-powered ships? The last time I saw anything powered by methane it was Barter Town, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, where the main energy source for the post-apocalyptic settlement was basically the combined flatulence of a huge herd of pigs… so are we talking about ships powered by farts? 

No, not really. Although methane (CH4) can be refined into methanol (CH3OH) using complex industrial processes, it is very different. At room temperature, methanol is a clear liquid, with a smell somewhere between Everclear and nail polish remover. 

So now we’ve got the schoolboy humour out of the way, is it better than oil? 

Depends. Methanol contains less than half as much energy as the same amount of liquid fossil fuel, like marine gas oil, making it less practical for long sea voyages. But, it burns cleaner, marginally more efficiently and at a lower temperature, which is why it has historically been used as fuel for motorsport – it is higher-octane and makes turbo- and super-charging easier to do without blowing up your engine. But, it still emits CO2 in similar proportion when burned. 

So it’s not greener than more traditional fuels? 

Not inherently. Steam-reforming from fossil fuels, like coal, oil and natural gas, emits more CO2 than just burning these as ship fuel. There is every chance the world’s coal, oil and gas companies will want to foist this ‘grey’ methanol on an unwitting industry – but if shipping switched to this kind of methanol tomorrow, emissions would go up, not down. 

I sense a ‘but’ coming… 

Indeed, but ‘green’ methanol is made using an existing emission of CO2 or methane. If you want to go really green, this could be biogenic, like swamp gas (and termites, for some reason). But, more likely, we will be harnessing sources that are ultimately man-made, like bioreactors, landfill gas and agriculture. This provides a lifecycle CO2 emissions reduction. 


Maersk defines ‘green’ methanol as “fuels with low (65-80% reduction) or very low (80-95% reduction) GHG emissions on a lifecycle basis compared to fossil fuel”. This means harnessing an existing source of methane for making into ship fuel. That carbon/methane will still be emitted – but not before it has been used to power a ship. In effect, we have created fuel from nothing, which is why we say methanol has low “lifecycle” emissions. Crucially, we will have left coal, oil and gas in the ground, which is the end goal of any serious decarbonisation effort. 

Will it have an effect on freight rates? 

Definitely. Fossil fuels are cheap, and renewables are expensive. Currently, fossil fuel production receives around 7% of global GDP in subsidies, around $5.8trn a year. If that money was spent on renewables instead, they would be cheap, and fossil fuels would be expensive. 

According to a Transport & Environment study, adopting e-methanol would increase the cost of shipping per teu by around 50%, increasing the consumer cost of a pair of Nike trainers by $0.08 and a television by about $1. But, investment by Maersk, and now other shipping lines, in bootstrapping green methanol suppliers may mean that the price could come down substantially in due course. 

So where does methanol stand in terms of new shipping emissions regulations? 

Green methanol, made in the right way, could wipe out anything from 60% to 100% of a ship’s carbon contribution (bar some small transport and bunkering costs of 5% or so), essentially giving it an ‘A’ rating under EEXI/CII and meeting every IMO “level of ambition” – or “indicative checkpoint” – going. But, if the methanol is made using steam reforming from fossil fuels, basically if its “grey” or “brown”, it’s worse than doing nothing. Fortunately, the IMO took this into account in its Fourth GHG study, essentially making “well-to-wake” a household term. It’s very important that these distinctions are made, however annoying the rainbow nomenclature might be for some. 

And does this have anything to do with the recent “eco delivery” deal between Maersk and Amazon to transport 20,000 40ft boxes? And how on earth does this work in practice?   

Bugger all. At least from what’s being discussed in this press release, it looks as if biofuel is the preferred solution – distinct from methanol (and bio-methanol, since we’re on the subject). It’s actually not that difficult to offset ship emissions using biofuel – Ikea and a couple of other companies do it. The idea is, the end customer buys a certain amount of biofuel and that gets blended into the ship’s existing fuel supply (you can do that with biofuel). That offsets the emissions proportionately to the amount of, in this case Amazon, cargo carried. It’s quite nifty, because it sidesteps the charterer/shipowner deadlock where nobody wants to invest in something that will only benefit the other. 

So how many of these ships should we expect to see steaming around the place? 

That’s a real ‘how long is a piece of string?’ question. At the moment, there are first-movers, backed by big money, market-leading shipping lines, but we can’t know for certain that methanol will be the mainstream choice, even now.  

Comment on this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.
  • Kittisak Jinjo

    September 18, 2023 at 9:07 am

    Is Transport & Environment Study available ? guess it was supposed to link to another site or something.