One size does not fit all in shipping -

One size does not fit all in shipping

22 Sep 2020

Interview with Massimo Debenedetti, Corporate Vice President for Research & Innovation at the Fincantieri shipbuilding group

Reducing air emissions through the use of new propulsion and energy generation technology is a key challenge for the shipping industry.

The future fleet will rely on a broad range of different fuels, propulsion solutions and energy efficiency measures depending on the different voyage profiles.

The technology portfolio will include alternative fuels such as LNG, LPG, methanol, biofuels and hydrogen, as well as emerging technologies such as energy recovery systems, advanced high-storage batteries, fuel cell systems and different power plant configurations. Each option comes with benefits and challenges related to reduced emissions, different Technology Readiness Levels, and impact on general arrangement and payload.

For these reasons, we do not see yet a consolidated consensus on the fuel of the future. In the long term, fuel leadership will emerge based on environmental neutrality, price, energy density, fuel availability, production issues, storage and distribution infrastructure and impact on general arrangement and payload.

For the coming decades, we see several fuels and technologies applied in different segments of the maritime industry, according to their viability as a business model:

  • In the short-to-medium term, fossil fuels with a better environmental footprint and lower carbon content (e.g. LNG, LPG and methanol) will be widely adopted to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Synthetic and bio-fuels may also represent an intermediate solution to facilitate the energy transition in a medium time-range, especially when carbon neutrality is ensured in the entire life cycle.
  • Hydrogen and hydrogen carriers (e.g. NH3, LOHC and synthetic hydrocarbons) will play the role of game changers, thus delivering significant positive results. These will require the creation of a supply chain based on renewable energy sources which is able to satisfy the increasing demand. Their potential in terms of decarbonisation is huge, even though applicability on a large scale will be slowed down by regulatory and technological constraints. These are currently being addressed by the most innovative industrial stakeholders.

Alternative fuels, electrification and the overall integration with port infrastructure are the key enabling factors for long-term sustainability in maritime and shipping.

Ships are very different in terms of size, service and operational profile, and applying a new technology to a variety of different applications requires high adaptability and fit-for-purpose to operational conditions. Therefore, we do not think the one-size-fits-all can be the right approach.

Beyond R&D challenges, we must also overcome several non-technological barriers in order to achieve the costeffective application of the technologies described above.

First, we do not yet have a clear regulatory framework enabling the use of hydrogen-based technologies. Then, we, as shipbuilders, must minimize the impact of fuel cells, batteries, fuel tanks, energy recovery systems and auxiliary systems on general arrangement and payload: after all, ships are made to carry goods and passengers, not fuel…

Furthermore, there is not a clear picture about future availability and pricing of the above-mentioned fuels: production capacity and a widespread bunkering network are fundamental enablers to ignite the decarbonisation of shipping.

Finally, incentive schemes in the form of R&D, Capex and Opex grants, which reward greenhouse gas reduction, are needed to catalyse the adoption of greener technologies.

Fincantieri is working hard to identify the future evolution. We are committed to implementing green technologies, and we are convinced that future competitiveness is closely connected to the first-mover advantage.

The internal R&D programmes we are developing and the partnerships we have established are going into this direction.

Shipyards can play a key role. We can support the promotion of alternative energy vectors, and disseminate information about the most costeffective technologies and how they interface with the ship.

Participating in technical committees and cooperative research projects is fundamental for this cross-fertilization of information, as is providing technical support to national and international authorities in order to develop rules and regulations.

Onboard a ship, the biggest constraints are space and weight. As a result, energy transition represents an engineering challenge not comparable to similar applications onshore. In brief, the shipbuilder can become the technological enabler in the value chain.

As mentioned, we imagine a set of alternatives fuels will replace the current ones. Some small-scale applications are already showing the future. At the same time, we need to frame such transformation in a typical S-curve evolution of technology, albeit with a significant difference: we are entering this transformation not because we have a technology enabling the transformation, but because we, industrial players, want to evolve into a paradigm of sustainability and climate neutrality.

Therefore, being at the beginning of the S-curve for large-scale hydrogen-based fuel applications, we need to accelerate adoption by closing the gap on full scalability. This means that, if we manage to identify solutions to increase energy efficiency and reduce power needs, this will in turn accelerate the uptake of GHG-free solutions.

Embracing the open innovation approach and establishing core partnerships is of paramount importance. The Fincantieri Group is participating in a range of groups, including Sea Europe, Hydrogen Europe, Waterborne Technology Platform, plus expert groups in the European Commission such as the European Sustainable Shipping Forum, and the International Maritime Organization. Working closely with classification societies is also key because when breakthroughs occur, traditional design paradigms and regulatory frameworks are challenged. RINA is one of the preferred classification societies for addressing these challenges.

Some alternative fuels, for example, do not have a coherent regulatory framework developed yet. This is the case for the Tec-Bia project supported by the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, where Fincantieri and RINA are cooperating with the Italian Coast Guard to define rules and regulations enabling sea trials of a seagoing vessel equipped with a fuel cell propulsion system.

At Fincantieri we feel the responsibility to lead change in the business, and we are proud to consider ourselves key players in creating a more sustainable future for the generations to come.