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The innovation presented at the Congress in Trieste is the result of an all-Italian research project led by Wärtsilä Italia 

NGShip: natural gas and fuel cells for greener cargo ships

11.09.2012 -

There are major innovations on the horizon for maritime transport, partly driven by the new international IMO regulations which have imposed a drastic reduction in pollutants deriving from marine propulsion, from 2015 onwards. One interesting solution comes from Friuli Venezia Giulia, where, thanks to an industrial research project co-funded by the ROP ERDF 2007-2013, a group of businesses, universities and research centres have created a new, "green" concept of liquified natural gas (LNG) for ships. The new formula will completely eliminate the atmospheric emissions of sulphur oxides and particulates, reducing CO2 and nitrogen oxide emissions by 25% and 85%, respectively.


The research team, headed by Wärtsilä Italia and composed of the Universities of Trieste and Udine, the AREA Science Park, RINA Services, Cenergy, Navalprogetti and Energy Automation, has set itself the task of tackling the double challenge now faced by the industry. On the one hand, it has to cut the cost of refuelling with traditional oil-based fuels, which may soon cost as much as 60% more, leading to an additional expense of $300 per tonne.


On the other hand, there is a need to protect the environment by drastically reducing pollution levels from 2015, firstly in the ECA (Emission Controlled Area) between the Baltic Sea and the coastline of the USA, possibly extending as far as the Mediterranean and to some of Asia's principal ports such as Singapore and Oceania - and then in the rest of the world from 2020 onwards.

The project, baptised NGShiP, has resulted in studies being carried out on initial feasibility, and on the cost effectiveness of a using a liquified natural gas system on an average-sized long-haul cargo ship. But why the choice of LNG?


"The use of LNG has undisputed benefits" - explains Rodolfo Taccani from the University of Trieste - "both in terms of reducing emissions and saving costs, considering that LNG has a lower cost than traditional fuels, and that its price is likely to fall even further". By combining the use of LNG with several innovative plant engineering solutions designed to significantly improve energy efficiency, NGShiP will be able to slash the costs of running a ship by 40%, compared to the use of low-sulphur fuels.


The project's innovative concept requires the installation of an independent storage tank to hold large quantities of LNG, the absence of cryogenic compressors, which would push up the cost, and in particular, full use of BOG (Boil Off Gas, the gaseous form of methane naturally produced from stored LNG) to generate electricity through the installation of fuel cells. This last solution would meet the ship's energy requirements when navigating or in dock, without the need for generators, cutting pollutant emissions even further.


"Wärtsilä now has consolidated experience in building dual-fuel (DF) gas engines" explains the engineer Yves Bui, NGShiP project leader at Wärtsilä Italia S.p.A., "but we needed to work with a team of highly qualified researchers in order to resolve the various issues that could have impeded a wider use of LNG on cargo ships with a storage tank. We have found that solution in Friuli Venezia Giulia".


For the shipowner, the payback period for an installation of this type is limited: a tanker ship  of average capacity (33,000 DWT) will repay the investment - including the system, installation, maintenance and fuel - in 3-8 years (best and worst case scenarios), depending on the cost of components and the trend in the price of LNG compared to that of traditional fuel, used as a benchmark. Thanks to a software program developed by the University of Trieste, the project team can also recalculate the cost data to reflect changes in the characteristics of individual parts of the system.


This is not only possible for newly-constructed LNG ships, but also for retrofits of existing ships. What's more, NGShiP has demonstrated that using LNG even in non-ECA zones is usually worthwhile, particularly for medium-sized ships transporting liquid chemicals. During the life cycle of a LNG ship, estimated to be 20 years, the savings on running costs can amount to as much as Euro 70 million.


The project has now come full circle, thanks to a survey, updated to 2012, of all the existing and planned port-based LNG refuelling stations in Europe. Other potential sites on the busiest maritime routes have also been identified. Installing large LNG tanks on long-haul cargo ships is now possible, and is an opportunity to make navigation more sustainable.