Can the world’s biggest bio-hub solve sustainable shipping?

While sustainability is quickly gaining ground in many sectors, ranging from solar panels to e-cars, the transition has been a challenge for one of the most important links in our global economy: Maritime shipping. That is why the Port of Rotterdam has decided to put its weight behind the shift to new shipping fuels, along with some of the biggest players in the industry.

No silver bullet

While maritime shipping is the world’s most efficient form of freight transport, its widespread reliance on fossil fuels also make it a significant contributor of greenhouse gasses – accounting for about 3% of global CO2 emissions.

Shifting to more sustainable fuels is a challenge, as fuels need to satisfy a range of criteria related to safety, costs, availability, and practical use. For trucks and inland shipping, battery-electric transport and hydrogen are gaining ground, and Rotterdam is among the first ports in the world offering containers with battery-packs or hydrogen for zero-emission inland shipping. However, intercontinental maritime transport presents a different set of challenges due to the immense energy requirements. The largest container ships may carry up to 200.000 tons of cargo, often traveling thousands of kilometers across the globe.

Hydrogen could still be a contender for maritime shipping, but takes up a lot of space on board as it requires large storage tanks at either high pressure or with extreme temperatures well below -200 degrees Celsius. Other options are methanol or ammonia, both of which can be made from either bio-materials or hydrogen, with limited CO2 emissions and easier to store than liquid hydrogen. Another option is bio-diesel, which has the advantage that it can be used on existing ships without significant adjustments. But even bio-diesel has its challenges, such as the need to responsibly source enough bio-mass or vegetable oil.

World’s leading bio-fuel hub

In response to these challenges, the Port of Rotterdam is doubling down on realizing a multi-fuel future. Europe’s premier port was already known as the world’s second biggest bunkering hub, but few realize it is also the number one bio-fuel cluster in the world.

Annual biofuel production in the port is growing fast and reached more than 2.5 million tons in 2023, led by companies such as Alco (bio-ethanol from corn), Neste (renewable diesel from waste oils), and Viterra (fuels from waste oils and fats). Around 12 million tons of biofuels are traded, transferred and stored in the port each year. A large portion of these fuels are going to road transport and airlines, but the availability of bio-diesel and favorable environmental regulation have also made Rotterdam the world’s leading bunkering port for bio-fuels, offering up to 100% bio-blends since 2018.

Port Readiness Levels

The next steps in the journey are the use of renewable methanol, ammonia and LNG. These can unlock zero-emission maritime shipping but are also less familiar than diesel, requiring new engines and procedures. To speed up their adoption, Rotterdam has worked with other leading ports and the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) on an uniform tool and standard for the role out of new fuels. The Port Readiness Levels (PRL) provide clarity on a port’s progress in offering new fuels. This is crucial for ship operators, who want to understand when a new fuel is available along their designated cargo route before they commit to ordering new engines or ships.

The new standards are helping to boost adoption and deployment of sustainable fuels. In recent years, Rotterdam facilitated the world’s first barge-to-ship bunkering of methanol, which is gaining traction. In 2023, shipyards received orders for 35 methanol-powered vessels, including from Stena and Maersk, which bunkered green methanol in Rotterdam in the summer of 2023. X-Press Feeders, which has 14 hybrid ships on order, will also bunker green methanol in Rotterdam in the future. The roll-out of ammonia is expected to follow shortly, with first trials planned for the coming year.

These standards and trials are showing ports and ship operators around the world that a world with net-zero shipping is possible and form the foundation for the next step in our journey: net-zero shipping at scale on designated Green Corridors.

Value chain collaboration and Green Corridors

Facilitating the bunkering of new fuels at port is just one step in the transition – the deployment of new marine fuels requires the entire supply chain working together at a global level, from fuel producers and ports to shipping companies and regulators.

The Port is already reducing the threshold for shippers to transport their goods sustainably, through ‘insetting’ programs like Switch to Zero. Shippers often transport a small number of containers on different vessels. Switch to Zero allows them to reduce the CO2 for their share of this transport, by bundling the demand for sustainable transport from multiple shippers to allow one or more vessels to use sustainable fuels for an equivalent amount.

To scale up further, the Port of Rotterdam has initiated several Green Corridor projects, including an ambitious Green and Digital Shipping Corridor between Rotterdam and Singapore. This is one of the world’s premier trade routes, spanning more than 15,000 kilometers and connecting the two largest bunkering ports in the world.

The project aims to deploy the first sustainable vessels sailing between the two ports by 2027 and realize net-zero shipping by 2050. In addition to the fuel switch, the project also implements new digital solutions between the two ports to improve the efficiency and sustainability of shipping in the short term.

The corridor brings together 20 partners, ranging from fuel suppliers, and liners to experts in shipping and finance. Together, they operate more than 80 large container vessels on the route with a total capacity of over 1 million TEU, making the Rotterdam-Singapore Green and Digital Corridor a leading force in making marine shipping work in a sustainable world.

Article by: Port of Rotterdam

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