First LNG container ships under way

First LNG container ships under way

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News & Events - Engineering News

January 3, 2013

When people in the energy industry talk about shipping and liquefied natural gas, generally the topic of conversation is how to push the U.S. to begin exporting the suddenly abundant fuel abroad. But for Princeton, New Jersey-based shipping company TOTE, Inc., the more interesting idea is how LNG can change the fuel picture on the high seas, according to Popular Mechanics.

The company has decided to invest in two new large-scale transport ships designed to rely primarily on LNG. Though other ships have been converted to this newer fuel, or adopted it as a fallback for more traditional oil-based fuels, these two will be first of their kind to use LNG first and foremost.

For decades, the U.S. has been importing massive amounts of natural gas, much of it in the form of LNG - gas cooled down into a liquid and then regasified on the other end of a sea voyage.

But with the rise of hydraulic fracturing and exploration of unconventional resources, America has suddenly found itself flooded with more cheap natural gas than it can readily use. This has made the massive LNG imports largely unnecessary, particularly given the high production costs and heavy infrastructure requirements.

TOTE hopes to take advantage of the change in the market to switch some of its ships to a more environmentally-friendly fuel.

Cheaper, but limited
Most ships on the seas today are powered by an incredibly heavy form of oil known as bunker fuel, which produces significantly more pollution than many other oil-based fuels, with much of the rest relying on diesel.

Still, only a relatively small number of ships have made the switch to LNG for several different reasons.

First, the cost of ships with hybrid systems is significantly higher than older designs, while adapting existing systems is both costly and technically challenging. Second, LNG has a lower energy density, meaning that a trip of the same distance requires a greater volume of fuel, adding weight to a ship and detracting from cargo storage space. Finally, LNG distribution systems are not designed for supplying ships, making fuel reliability a concern.

Greener fuel
With the price of natural gas lingering below equivalent amounts of oil, however, TOTE decided LNG offered the best opportunity to lower its emissions.

"For us, the reason, first and foremost, is environmental," Anthony Chiarello, president and CEO of TOTE, told Popular Mechanics. "Having an environmentally friendly solution was the driver from the beginning."

Their reasoning is not purely altruistic, since a new set of environmental rules will restrict emissions near ecologically sensitive areas. However, the switch to LNG will blow past these new regulations, lowering emissions of particulate matter 99 percent, while smog-forming sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides would fall 98 percent and 91 percent, respectively.

The two new vessels, which are scheduled to launch in 2015 and 2016, will be used on TOTE's shipping routes to Puerto Rico, which pass through several designated sensitive areas.

The company notes that its only concern thus far has been securing a reliable source of LNG, but several groups have already made offers to supply the company, with all of them willing to meet whatever accommodations it needs.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a growing number of shipping companies are investigating natural gas as a potential replacement for oil, with one Chinese firm ordering the first in a new series of hybrid LNG-diesel tugs. Other smaller boats have already made the conversion, with generally positive results. The only real concern for larger interests remains the issue of supply.

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