Thursday, September 21, 2023
HomeTechnologyHow Common Chemicals Help Clean Up Global Shipping

How Common Chemicals Help Clean Up Global Shipping

I was actually thinking of ships, because the IMO, the UN agency that oversees the ships that move everything from tennis skirts to electric car batteries around the world, just had big news about global shipping. On July 7th, the IMO agreed to new climate goals, setting a target date of “2050 or thereabouts” to clean up industry practices and achieve net-zero emissions.

This is a big deal for the shipping industry, which didn’t have any widely accepted goals before. But as we all know, goals are more of a beginning than an end. So let’s take a look at the technologies companies may turn to in their pursuit of net-zero shipping.


In addition to the net zero emissions target, a key part of the IMO agreement is a series of checkpoints by 2050. These are non-binding, but the IMO does set a target of 20% reductions by 2030 and 70% by 2040.

These checkpoints are crucial to spur industry action, said Madeleine Ross, senior director of climate at the environmental group Pacific Environment, who is present at the IMO proceedings, “Action”.

I’m particularly interested in the first checkpoint, since 2030 is coming up. (Fun fact: The first day of 2030 is actually closer to today than the last day of 2016.) A 20% reduction in emissions sounds like a lot for an industry that is often said to be difficult to decarbonize. But digging deeper, I was surprised to find that there are actually several fairly simple paths the industry can take to get there, and it might take time.

In fact, simply slowing down ships is enough to achieve a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Faster ships require more fuel than slower ships, even to travel the same distance. Other technological options are also on the table, such as new fuels and devices such as sails or special rotors that could harness the wind to propel ships. Together, these three measures could actually reduce emissions by nearly 50% by the end of the century, according to a study by environmental consultancy CE Delft.

I’ve written all about these near-term measures that the shipping industry may be taking, so check out my story to learn more about them. In the meantime, let’s look further ahead and consider what the shipping industry will look like in 2050.


Slowing down the ship, adding wind assist, and even adding coatings to make the ship more slippery in the water will reduce fuel usage. But that’s not how we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero. That’s because, even if you improve efficiency, you’re still using fossil fuels, which create emissions that contribute to climate warming.

So, in the long run, the shipping industry must find more fundamental ways to clean up its behaviour, such as finding new sources of energy.

Batteries will find their way into some ships, but they may be limited to shorter voyages, as most batteries today are too large and heavy to carry enough power for the longest voyages.

A study published last year in the journal Nature Energy estimated that today’s battery-powered ships could economically service ranges of up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). If batteries continue to get cheaper and pack more power into smaller packages, ranges of up to 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) could soon be possible (even longer, if environmental costs are accounted for and ships can be designed to carry more weight).

But for the longest routes we may still have to rely on fuel.

One option is ammonia , which I’ve written about before. The chemical is used today as a fertilizer ingredient and can power ships in two different ways. It can be used in internal combustion engines because, as a non-carbon-based fuel, it produces no carbon dioxide when burned. Ammonia can also be used as a way to store and transport hydrogen, which can then be used in fuel cells to power electric ships. Check out my story from last year for all the details.

Other companies are looking at methanol as a potential green fuel. It still contains carbon, so it does emit carbon emissions when burned, but the fuel can be produced using renewable electricity and CO2 extracted from the atmosphere or from biological sources, so the emissions balance could be low or even zero.

Shipping giant Maersk recently announced that it had collected enough biomethanol for its maiden voyage from South Korea to Denmark. Availability of biomethanol and other low-emissions fuels remains a bottleneck for the industry, but the company has ordered a dozen methanol-powered ships.

I will be following these alternative energy jobs, so stay tuned to me for more. For the record, we are closer to 2050 than we were to 1996.

Related reading

Check out my story on how the shipping industry can start reducing emissions now.

Ammonia is a popular candidate fuel for global shipping, but the fuel needs to overcome some potential hurdles first. I wrote about both sides of the ammonia coin last year.

Ships may not be the only devices powered by methanol: In China, some companies want to use methanol to power vehicles. My colleague Zeyi Yang reported on this trend in the fall.

Another thing

Syracuse, NY will soon be going through a period of great change. The city, marked by poverty, will soon be home to four massive chip factories at a total construction cost of $100 billion. My colleague David Rotman digs into what this might mean for the region, and what an influx of federal money from the U.S. could mean for other cities across the country. Read it here.

Keeping up with climate change

European summer heat waves killed more than 60,000 people last year. Italy, Spain and Portugal have the highest death rates. (New York Times)

→ I wrote a piece last year about how changing summer heat patterns could bring more air conditioning to the continent, and why that might be a problem. (MIT Technology Review)

A decades-old coal-fired power plant in North Dakota is being retrofitted with a carbon capture system . The project, which will cost more than $1 billion, could be a major test of the technology. (Climate News Insider)

Toyota announces plans to put solid-state batteries in cars by 2027. But this is far from the first time an automaker has committed to the technology. (Financial Times)

→ If solid-state batteries are used in electric vehicles, they can shorten charging time and increase vehicle mileage. (MIT Technology Review)

Testing of an enhanced geothermal system in Utah has reached a major milestone, connecting deep tunnels drilled underground. Enhanced geothermal projects can help bring renewable energy to places where traditional geothermal cannot. (Deseret)

DOE has a lot of money, hundreds of millions of dollars in it, and the office wants to use some of it for public transportation. (Bloomberg)

The Biden administration just approved a large offshore wind farm. Located off the coast of New Jersey, it provides power to as many as 380,000 homes. (cereals)



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