Maersk Orders 12 Methanol-Powered Container Ships With Fuel-Saving Design

And wow, they are ugly.

Maersk Biomethanol ship

A.P. Moller-Maersk

Treehugger's Sami Grover noted last year that A.P. Moller-Maersk—usually just known as Maersk— had ordered eight large methanol-powered container ships from Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI). We followed up with the question of how green is Maersk's bio-methanol fuel? Now Maersk has followed up with more information on the ships themselves, which are a new design that uses 20% less fuel per shipping container. These are not silly 2050 pledges either—the first delivery is in 2024.

Most methanol made today is "brown" and made from fossil fuels, and burning it would release fossil carbon dioxide (CO2). As we wrote previously, Maersk is using bio-methanol made from plant waste, or e-methanol made from hydrogen and captured CO2. The company will need 450,000 tons per year to run all 12 ships, but the Methanol Institute says there are many projects on the boards and under construction, and predicts there will be a million tons per year available by 2025. If there isn't enough when the ships arrive, they are dual-fuel and will run on Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) until there is enough.

Green methanol will cost a lot more than fuel oil. Soren Skou of Maersk told CNBC Europe it might be three times as expensive, but "the inflationary impact will be very modest when it comes out to the consumer.” Divided over 8,000 pairs of sneakers in a container, "it’s 10 cents per pair of sneakers. So that’s why I think … for the consumer, it will be manageable.”

The higher cost of fuel is what drove the redesign of the ships. According to the Maersk press release: "This design allows a 20% improved energy efficiency per transported container, when comparing to the industry average for vessels in this size. Additionally, the entire series is expected to save around one million tons of annual CO2 emissions, offering our customers carbon-neutral transportation at scale on ocean trades." The ship carries 16,000 20-foot equivalent (TEU) containers, though most containers today are 40 feet long.

"The vessels will be 350 meters [1148 feet] long, 53.5 meters [175 feet] wide, and will look significantly different from what has been seen before for any larger container vessels. The crew accommodation and bridge will be located at the bow to enable increased container capacity. The funnel will be in the aft, and only on one side of the vessel, thereby providing further space for cargo. This separation between accommodation and funnel will also improve efficiency when at the port."
Side view of ship

A.P. Moller-Maersk

It certainly does look different; some would say ugly.

 "To enable this new design, several challenges had to be addressed. Firstly, crew comfort had to be ensured with the accommodation placed in this more exposed location. Moreover, adequate hull strength was also a key parameter to safeguard, with the accommodation block normally working as a hull 'stiffener' when placed further backwards. New arrangements for lifeboats and navigational lights had to be developed, plus new cameras to support the captain’s view when navigating."

Many old salts are not impressed, thinking it looks more like a livestock carrier than a container ship. On the website The Loadstar, the post is titled "Thank God I won't be on board' – Maersk methanol ship design under fire." Ex-ship’s captain Arjun Vikram-Singh is quoted extensively:

“Imagine living right on the forecastle, then imagine a head sea, the pitching, and pounding, Imagine the sound and the impact of spray and waves when the bow addresses a big swell. Imagine the terror when the engines thrust into the sea and the bow struggles to rise. But hey, these are only seafarers—who cares... Better men will sail this ship, and I salute them. I would not. Not even for a lot of money.”

Another seaman complained about how far it was from the bridge to the engine room: “When the alarms go off, they’ve probably got the best part of a quarter-mile to run.” The comments on the post are pretty negative, too, although they note that these designs are not uncommon.

"This design is only novel because it’s on a vessel class that comes with high expectations for crew comfort. Virtually every offshore vessel is built this way, and many heavy-lift ships, fishing vessels and coastal cargo ships too. Are they comfortable in a storm? No—it can be like living inside a washing machine. Are there people who can do it? Yes—a subset of mariners who don’t mind seasickness serve aboard these working vessels every day. Some of them prefer the house-forward layout because of the forward visibility from the bridge."
Stern of ship

A.P. Moller-Maersk

But a 20% saving in fuel is significant, and it will be easier and faster to unload the ship. Perhaps the best thing about it is that a contract has been signed, it's real, and it's really fast with 2024 delivery. That's enough to get bio-methanol and e-methanol brewers cracking. It may be an ugly ship, but it is a beautiful story.