Ammonia, methanol or LNG: efficiency will still be king

A shipping vessel at sea
We talk to Dirk Bergmann, new CTO at ABB Turbocharging, to get his perspective on his work, and the path towards decarbonisation in the marine industry.

Dirk Bergmann is the new CTO at ABB Turbocharging, headquartered in Baden, Switzerland. Coming from the engine industry, he brings a holistic and customer-centric view to the role. We are keen to get his perspective on his work, and the path towards decarbonization in the marine industry.

What can you tell us about your background and previous career?

I’ve been fascinated with engines ever since I started tinkering with the engine of my Volkswagen Beetle as a student. So, in November 1999, after my studies and PhD, I started at MTU – a German engine manufacturer now owned by Rolls Royce – in its technology and pre-development department, working on new components to help find better solutions for the end customer. I continued to work in the commercial, industrial and marine business in technology and product development for 20 years. Now, at ABB, I’m continuing that path: turbochargers are the best way to ensure highly efficient internal combustion engines.

Engine efficiency is going to continue to be extremely important as we start to introduce alternative fuels. To begin with, they will be more expensive than conventional fuels, so operators will be very concerned to get the best value out of their engines to keep fuel costs as low as possible. It’s going to be an interesting problem for the politicians: as demand for fossils fuels decreases, their prices will probably drop still further, yet they need engine operators to choose the new, cleaner alternative fuels regardless.

What is the role of the CTO at ABB Turbocharging?

I lead a team of around 100 experts and specialists who provide the product groups with the core components of new turbochargers. We pre-develop and design all the rotating parts, starting with the compressor, the turbine wheel and the bearings – from design right up until testing, with responsibility for the overall validation procedures of the product. For each market, there are different demands on the engine, and so each model has different performance demands, and other constraints that affect the design. By working on each application, we can bring learnings to the next.

There’s also a more strategic aspect – to understand the longer-term trends and boundary conditions in our markets – and to pre-develop the parts we will need in the future. Part of the role is to translate these trends into a technology strategy. For example, I am chairman of the CIMAC Greenhouse Gas Strategy Group, and we meet monthly to discuss the best way forward for, especially, the global shipping industry towards decarbonization. This is one of the main trends, alongside digitalization and more electrified parts.

What are the current and growing priorities for your customers?

Certainly, the key concern is reliability. Our customers’ business models typically rely on lengthy, uninterrupted system uptime to get their work done, and so we spend considerable time and effort on creating high-quality products that will not let them down. We spend a lot of time on validations to produce accurate estimates in terms of durability. In operations, the products are backed by our worldwide network of service organizations to ensure parts are tuned and cleaned to push that reliability higher. Efficiency and fuel consumption are also top on the list as they have big impact on emissions and operational costs.

For large cruise ship operators and large shipping fleet owners, they’re looking to the future and thinking about what kind of fuel they will have to bunker in future, and this is already influencing the market for new builds. Some owners are holding off from buying new ships until they are confident they can be retrofitted to use methanol or ammonia as fuels. Ships are highly expensive capex and are expected to be in operation for 30 years or longer. So potential buyers need to be thinking now about 2050 – whether their investment will still be valuable and something they could potentially sell onwards.

Dirk Bergmann

So, what does the route towards decarbonization look like?

The pathway, currently, is not clear – although the constraints – a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, and a 50% reduction by 2050 have already been set by the IMO. The 2030 reduction is probably manageable – and with shaft power limitation, for example, it seems to be feasible to reach the necessary reductions with existing fleets.

For the 2050 target though, ship owners will need to be using new fuels, and whichever fuels are adopted, they will require considerable infrastructure – around production, transportation and bunkering – that doesn’t exist yet. And, of course, in international shipping, that infrastructure needs to exist at every major port to be viable. If you send an ammonia-powered container ship from China to Europe, you have to be sure you can bunker ammonia once you’ve reached your destination, not just at the start.

A further discussion asks where the energy will come from to create these new types of fuel. At the moment, only around 15% of our overall energy demand is produced from renewable sources. Even when new renewable sources are created, they’re almost certain to be absorbed by local demands – electric cars, the consumer grid, or hydrogen for the steel industry – so that nations can reach local greenhouse gas targets. International shipping won’t be a priority.

There’s a real possibility, then, we might not get the fuels needed for the decarbonization of shipping until after 2040. So, currently, we are also discussing additional measures such as methane pyrolysis – the possibility of converting natural gas into a combination of hydrogen and solid carbon, which can be captured to prevent pollution, and potentially re-used in concrete and in agriculture. These kinds of solutions need to be given as much attention as the longer term, future fuel technologies.

Realistically, we’ll see a diversity of solutions across the industry. We’ll see more ships using LNG, an established technology which can reduce emissions by around 15%. In combination with slow steaming and running the engine more efficiently, this will help them move towards the initial targets. Ammonia could be the right solution for international merchant shipping, though the engine OEMs still need to show it can work, it’s perhaps more likely that cruise ships will move towards the use of methanol. The areas they travel to might have easier access to methanol. There might be 3-4 of these routes, although again each proposed fuel solution needs to be available globally for it to be viable.

« Regardless of which fuel solution is used in an internal combustion engine to make this transition to reduced emissions and eventual decarbonization, engine efficiency will be vital to making this work in a cost-effective manner »

Dirk Bergmann 

How can ABB support the industry in this journey?

Regardless of which fuel solution is used in an internal combustion engine to make this transition to reduced emissions and eventual decarbonization, engine efficiency will be vital to making this work in a cost-effective manner. Ensuring any fuel is mixed with the correct amount of oxygen and reacts in the best way will remain of paramount importance. With our knowledge and skill in creating and testing these turbochargers, we can help owners and operators keep the cost as low as possible. The importance of reliability comes in again here – with our advanced production and validation experience we can ensure that even engines running with new fuels, for example ammonia, will run for thousands of hours without any problems.

Image credits: Chris Pagan/Unsplash