Promising Future for Biogas in Maritime Decarbonization

Maersk Center Study Highlights Biogas Potential and Urges Stringent Emission Controls


The Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping has released an optimistic forecast regarding the future potential of biogas as a pivotal fuel in the green transition of the maritime industry. Their extensive year-long study highlights that, with careful management, biogas could play a crucial role in decarbonizing shipping, particularly in the initial stages of this transition. The report suggests that biofuel production is viable at a substantial scale using current technologies and can effectively support the shipping industry’s decarbonization efforts. Notably, production and refinement pathways that integrate carbon capture and storage (CCS) are promising, with some even achieving carbon-negative results due to biogenic CO2 uptake from the feedstock sources.

The study’s findings emphasize that the specific type of biofuel is less significant compared to the optimization of the production process. Optimized value chains are capable of delivering both liquefied biomethane (LBM) and bio-methanol with significantly negative emissions. This insight underscores the importance of refining production methods to maximize environmental benefits.

One operational approach proposed by the study involves utilizing biogas near its production site while selling decarbonized energy certificates to shipping companies. This book-and-claim system, already widely used for liquid biofuels, could effectively offset a vessel’s fossil-derived emissions. For direct use as marine fuel, converting biogas into LBM—its bio-based equivalent of liquefied natural gas (LNG)—is identified as the most cost-effective method. The researchers noted that the standard commercial process for upgrading and liquefying biogas into LBM is the cheapest option available, with synthetic natural gas (SNG) and biomethanol production being 50%-70% more expensive at similar scales.

A significant environmental challenge highlighted in the report is the control of unintended bio-methane emissions during production, transport, and use. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and minimizing lifecycle methane emissions is essential to ensuring a climate-friendly fuel system with biogas. The center warns that leaks at any stage—production, distribution, or usage—could undermine the sustainability benefits of a biofuel value chain. Current methane emission levels indicate that improvements are necessary. For instance, at the present estimated loss rate of 5-6%, the European biogas infrastructure could potentially leak enough biomethane to equate to 15-45% of the current CO2 emissions from European shipping. Such a scenario could disqualify the biofuel from being considered sustainable, depending on how its impact is measured.

The study draws attention to humanity’s historical challenges in avoiding anthropogenic methane emissions, which are currently estimated at 350 million tonnes per year. Given this context, the authors stress the urgency of tightening regulations within the biogas industry to ensure new plants incorporate the necessary technology to be emissions-free. This regulatory tightening is deemed crucial to achieving the desired environmental benefits from biogas.

In the broader context of maritime decarbonization efforts, the findings of the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Center resonate with ongoing global initiatives. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping, aiming for a 50% reduction by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. Biogas, with its potential for negative emissions when optimized, could be a key component in achieving these targets. Historical precedents, such as the adoption of LNG as a marine fuel, illustrate the industry’s capacity for technological adaptation and regulatory evolution.

Moreover, the emphasis on methane emission control aligns with broader environmental goals, such as those outlined in the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Ensuring the biogas industry adheres to stringent emissions standards will be vital in contributing to these global climate objectives.

In conclusion, the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Center’s study presents a promising outlook for biogas as a transformative fuel in the maritime sector’s green transition. However, realizing this potential will require meticulous management of production processes, stringent regulatory frameworks, and a concerted effort to minimize methane emissions. If these challenges can be addressed, biogas could become a cornerstone of sustainable maritime shipping, driving significant progress towards a decarbonized future.

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