The course is clean

When it comes to protecting our climate, shipping has not enjoyed the best of reputations in recent years. But now a real change of course lies ahead which focuses on more environmentally friendly drive systems and alternative fuel types.

There are just a few more installations and tests to complete before the Brussels Express, owned by Hamburg-based shipping company Hapag-Lloyd, is “LNG-ready”. She will complete her next round trips between Asia and Europe using exclusively liquefied natural gas, which pollutes the environment far less than commonly used heavy fuel oil or diesel.

The background story: In autumn 2020 the container freighter, capable of transporting 15,000 20-foot boxes (TEU), approached Shanghai’s Huarun Dadong shipyard under its former name Sajir. Roughly half a year later the ship set out again – almost unchanged from the outside, but with lots of new technology in its hull and its new name, Brussels Express, written on its bow.

Hapag-Lloyd invested $35 million, approximately one-third of the vessel’s original price. A consortium of shipyards, engine manufacturers, tank builders and numerous other suppliers converted the main engine, auxiliary diesel, boiler and supply network, including the main tank, to support dual-fuel operation using environmentally friendly LNG liquid gas. Low-sulfur fuel acts as the backup for the dual system.

Completely new challenges

The conversion of the mega-freighter, which was built in 2014, presented everyone involved with completely new challenges. The LNG had to be stored in a huge new on-board tank, an additional pipeline system had to be installed, and fuel had to be processed – naturally in a way that ensured that the availability and performance of the Brussels Express remained at the highest level. The conversion was correspondingly complex and expensive.

Milestone in the conversion to LNG: How the Brussels Express got its new tank

The ship arrived for conversion at the shipyard as the Sajir; now it is called the Brussels Express. Photo: Hapag-Lloyd
With a conventional drive, the "Sajir" calls at the Huarun Dadong shipyard in Shanghai​
In order to minimise the docking period required for the conversion, the tank was fully assembled beforehand. Photos: Hapag-Lloyd, Huarun Dadong Dockyard
The tank and large components were hoisted aboard by a floating crane. The tank alone weighs approximately 1,300 tonnes. Photo: Hapag-Lloyd
The close proximity of the engine room to the tank position allows the pipelines connecting the units and the gas processing system to be kept as short as possible. Photo: Hapag-Lloyd

Aiming for fully emissions-free shipping

“This conversion makes us the only liner shipping company in the world to have modified a container ship of this size,” explains Richard von Berlepsch, Managing Director Fleet Management at Hapag-Lloyd. However, there are also several large newbuilds, such as ships belonging to French shipping company CMA-CGM, which have used LNG as a fuel source right from the outset.

This is due to the rigorous sustainability goals laid out by the United Nations. The International Maritime Organization has also set ambitious targets. Since 1 January 2020, all ships around the world with a conventional diesel engine have been obliged to use low-sulfur fuel (maximum content: 0.5 percent), while CO2 emissions are to be reduced by at least 30 percent by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050 relative to 2008 levels. Shipping is set to be completely emissions-free by 2100.

Scrubbers clean exhaust gases

Even though fuels have had to comply with the maximum permitted limits for sulfur since 1 January 2020, there is still great demand for berths at shipyards where conversions and repairs can be carried out. The reason: many shipping companies have decided to retrofit ships with scrubbers, which is labour-intensive and costly. These enable the continued use of cheap fuels (heavy oil) with a higher sulfur content since they “scrub” the sulfur from the exhaust gases. For instance, the ACL shipping company, a member of the Italian Grimaldi Group, had its large G4 series of combination RoRo container ships, which were built between 2013 and 2017, equipped with scrubbers right in the shipyard. These ships are regularly handled by HHLA in Hamburg. However, scrubbers do not represent an alternative to an LNG drive system from an environmental perspective. Furthermore, the problem must still be addressed of how to best dispose of the resulting waste water containing hazardous residues.

Port fees: Hamburg is getting cheaper for clean ships

Three questions for Björn Pistol, Head of Port Estate and Maritime Affairs for the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA) on the topic of “clean ships in Hamburg”

HHLA online magazine: What is the Port of Hamburg doing for “clean” ships?
Björn Pistol: Ships with particularly environmentally friendly on-board operations and which are state-of-the-art compared with legal standards – if they communicate this fact – have enjoyed discounts on port usage fees for many years now. This applies to both ocean-going vessels and inland waterway ships.

What specific requirements must the ships fulfil in this regard?
In the case of ocean-going vessels, for example, these include engine operation with reduced nitrogen oxide emissions based on MARPOL Annex VI environmental standards – or, in the case of inland waterway ships, based on ZKR/NRMM regulations. Ships with an LNG engine also fall under this category. Other factors that result in discounts are the use of shore-side power stations during layovers; a score from the Environmental Ship Index (ESI-air), which considers the ship’s air emissions; and participation in ESI’s noise programme for the reduction of noise emissions.

How is the number of ships developing that meet the requirements for discounts?
Based on publicly available sources such as the Environmental Ship Index (ESI) database, it is evident that an increasing number of ships are demonstrating continually improving values. We believe that the shift towards cleaner ship operations and reaching climate targets could be even better supported if other actors in the ports would base at least some of their services on environmental criteria, as is the case with the HPA.

LNG is winning people over, even in newbuilds

Even Fleet Manager Richard von Berlepsch does not yet know which fuels will allow these targets to be met. He thinks LNG is a good choice in any case: its use reduces CO2 emissions by around 20 percent and reduces sulfur dioxide and particles by more than 90 percent. “Furthermore, LNG is available, the logistics are established, and we know how to handle it from a technical perspective,” adds Berlepsch.

The arguments in favour of LNG also won over Hapag-Lloyd in December 2020, when the shipping company ordered six LNG-powered container mega-ships with a capacity of 23,500 TEU each. Starting in April 2023, they will call regularly at the HHLA terminals in Hamburg.

“We are opening the doors so that ships the size of ours emit fewer greenhouse gases already today, and we aim to become completely carbon neutral as soon as possible,” Berlepsch concludes.

Whether it’s old cooking oil, wind, hydrogen or electricity: there is a wide range of alternatives to LNG

Many experts feel that LNG and scrubbers are merely a temporary solution as we make the transition to CO2-free shipping. For this reason, research into real alternatives is being conducted all over the world – some of which are already being tested under real operating conditions. In this gallery, we present some particularly interesting examples of environmentally friendly drive systems.

The main engine of the small RoRo freighter Autosky, owned by Norwegian shipping company UECC, is powered by used cooking oil from fast food restaurants. Photo: UECC
British company Windship Technology wants to fit 125,000-tonne freighters with innovative sails, thereby completely eliminating the emission of hazardous substances. Photo: Windship Technology
The Finnish rotor manufacturer Norsepower has installed two auxiliary wind-powered propulsion systems on board the SC Connector. Since the rotor sails are tiltable, the ship can pass under bridges. Photo: Norsepower
Swedish ferry company Stena Line expects to launch a fully electrically powered ship before 2030. Project name: “Stena Elektra” Photo: Stena
Lean, mean and clean: The push boat Elektra will soon travel the river Elbe between Hamburg and Berlin. It will be powered by hydrogen, or rather fuel cells. Photo: TU Berlin
Cruise ships can be supplied with shore-side electricity during layovers, eliminating the need for auxiliary diesel engines. This reduces emissions during layovers. Photo: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises