One of the big topics related to fuels today is liquefied natural gas, or LNG. PRIME has travelled all the way up to the city of Vaasa to find out more about it. Vaasa happens to be the home of the largest energy cluster in the Nordic countries, yet that is not why we are here.
Instead, we have come to visit one of Wärtsilä’s biggest engine manufacturing facilities, situated right in the middle of the city. We have an appointment with Mr. Tomas Aminoff, Director of Technology Strategy at Wärtsilä.
Aminoff keeps a close eye on what is going on around the world. He follows the development of technologies and fuels, as well as the changing behaviour and priorities of Wärtsilä’s customers. This helps Wärtsilä gain a general idea about the directions towards which the company should steer its services and its product portfolio.
Today we are interested in LNG, which definitely is under Aminoff’s constant scrutiny.
Bringing Down Emissions and Operating Costs
Sustainability seems to be a key word when we talk about the rising status of LNG as a marine fuel. Is that why the importance of LNG is increasing? According to Aminoff, it is definitely one of the major factors driving this rise.
”With tightening international and national legislation,” Aminoff explains, “more and more operators need to find ways to cut down on their emissions. Today, this is particularly the case in Northern Europe and North America. LNG will enable you to meet most of the current and future regulations without investing in cleaning technology.”
“With LNG, you can achieve up to 25% reductions in CO2 emissions,” he continues. “However, this is not the strongest point of LNG. Its benefits are best seen when we think about the quality of the air we breathe. From that point of view, the amount of NOx emissions is crucial. Using LNG as fuel can reduce NOx emission by as much as 85%. LNG also offers a 95% fall in particulates and a 99% drop in SOx emissions.”
Another major benefit quoted by Aminoff is the global availability of natural gas. In addition to oil, natural gas is the only power source whose supply could meet the demand of the entire marine sector. Marine LNG import or export terminals are found globally, and the construction of many more, especially small and mid-scale, is “in the pipeline”.
“The growing supply and demand is also making LNG more and more affordable on a global level,” Aminoff adds. “In addition to the traditional oil producing countries that also produce natural gas, countries like the United States, the U.K., and Australia are investing strongly in this sector. In fact, it is estimated that Australia will become the world’s biggest exporter of LNG in the future.”
How safe exactly is LNG? For instance, certain news articles have expressed concern about the environmental damage caused by fracking, the method by which gas is obtained from the rock below the surface of the ground.
“There has certainly been a lot of criticism around that,” Aminoff admits. “I believe many problems have been caused by an amateurish way of handling things in the past. In the early days the priority was to recover the gas, whereas now there is more pressure to do it in an environmentally sound way.”
“As much as people like to malign big oil companies, it is my belief that their increased participation in the gas sector brings with it a certain level of technical know-how and standards, all crucial for safety. These companies are under constant scrutiny. They cannot afford to be sloppy. Also, the general knowledge and know-how is improving among all parties involved.”
What about those large LNG tanks in the terminals and on the decks of ships? They seem like easy targets? Regarding this concern, Aminoff has an interesting anecdote to share.
“I recently heard someone pondering the chance of a terrorist attack,” he says. “What if a terrorist should decide to aim their bazooka at the LNG fuel tank on board of a ship in some harbour? I’d say no one would get hurt. How come? Yes, gas is highly explosive. But when the gas used as fuel is in a liquid form, its temperature is as low as –162°C. The terrorist would cause more damage by aiming their weapon at practically any other target than the LNG tank. The tank would certainly not blow up.”
“That said, LNG is quite safe, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be handled properly. For that, there are professionals who know what they’re doing.”
The Rise of LNG
Natural gas is an increasingly common source of power in power plants. Another major sector in which gas is beginning to play a more significant role is transportation – to some extent the automotive industry, but primarily and to a growing extent the shipping industry.
“A lot of development has taken place in recent years,” Aminoff states. “If we consider power plants first, for a couple of years now Wärtsilä has been installing more gas-powered engines than those based on traditional liquid fuels. Meanwhile, more and more vessels use LNG as their primary source of power”.
For instance, in 2012 Wärtsilä supplied the propulsion machinery for the Viking Grace, the world’s first LNG-powered passenger vessel. Equipped with four dual-fuel main engines and other Wärtsilä solutions, the vessel can operate without restrictions in the SECA and NECA sulphur and nitrogen monitoring areas. The project was acknowledged throughout the industry for its sheer visionary ambition. Now, other ferry operators in the Baltic Sea such as Tallink-Silja and Gotlandsbolaget are also choosing LNG for their new ships.
It really seems LNG is making a major breakthrough. What else is Wärtsilä offering in relation to this development?
“Especially since the acquisition of Hamworthy in January 2012, Wärtsilä has had an extensive portfolio of products supporting the entire value chain,” Aminoff says. “In addition to delivering gas engines for power plants and ships, we offer strong expertise in gas handling, including gasification, liquification, and reliquification. We have equipment that can be used in the production of gas. This is definitely a growing business with ample opportunities.”
Developing the Infrastructure
Recently, Wärtsilä has also begun to provide LNG terminals and distribution systems – after all, small and mid-scale terminals are of great importance when increasing the role of natural gas as a viable option for transportation. In a way LNG is available, but then again…
“We need to make LNG better available in the sense that it has to be brought closer to the consumer,” Aminoff explains. “Globally, the challenge of LNG lies in the mini-scale infrastructure: how do you get the gas to your ship or your vehicle?”
“This infrastructure is developing rapidly in Northern Europe and in Northern America, both regions with tight environmental regulations in force or upcoming. But in global terms, the development has not been quite as fast. However, a lot of things are happening as we speak.”
“Sometimes I hear people ask, if they were to order a ship today, why should they decide to go for LNG? Instead, I would ask, ‘Why not LNG?’ If you are going to operate that ship in a region with tight environmental regulations and you have a regular operating route, LNG is a very strong candidate. The infrastructure to keep you fuelled up is going to be easy to arrange.”
For those choosing LNG, Wärtsilä offers a powerful, yet environmentally friendly solution in the form of its DF series of engines. The DF stands for dual fuel, meaning the engines can be run on either natural gas, light fuel oil (MDO), or heavy fuel oil (HFO). The engines can smoothly switch between fuels whilst operating, and they are designed to provide the same output regardless of the fuel.
Is LNG going to dominate the sector, or what does the fuel palette for the marine industry of the future look like? Aminoff believes we are going to see an industry with a wide variety of fuels where the choice is made depending on the purpose of the particular ship as well as where the ship is going to operate.
“You may choose a traditional liquid fuel, but in that case you are likely to be going to need to invest in pollution control technology as well. Or you may choose LNG, or biofuel, or methanol, or something else – they will all have their place.”
And Wärtsilä will deliver what the customer chooses?
“According to its strategy, Wärtsilä offers its customers fuel flexible power generation. So the answer to that question is definitely a ‘yes’.”
Text and Image by Industrial PRIME
tel. +358 45136 3532