Interview: Maritime decarbonisation - now is the time to lead the field, says CMB

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History might tell us that in shipping, being ahead of the game is not usually the best position to be in, says Alexander Saverys, CEO of Antwerp-based CMB. However, in meeting the immense and urgent task of decarbonisation, ‘usual’ rules do not apply.

Antwerp-based maritime and logistics group CMB (Compagnie Maritime Belge) is well ahead of the game, driving forward with a series of innovations to use hydrogen as a fuel. At COP 26, CMB was proud to showcase some of its achievements and it was the headline sponsor of the International Maritime Hub, created by Maritime UK and the City of Glasgow College.

Clearly, CMB isn’t holding back.

The acquisition of the UK company Windcat Workboats last year was a demonstration of CMB’s commitment to low-carbon innovation; based in Lowestoft, on England’s east coast, Windcat operates a fleet of more than 45 offshore crew transfer vessels, mostly serving the European offshore wind. CMB and Windcat are now preparing to launch the Hydrocat, the world’s first hydrogen-powered crew transfer vessel.

During 2021, CMB has launched a hydrogen refuelling station, a dual-fuel truck, a dual-fuel excavator, the HydroBingo – Asia’s first hydrogen ferry – and a monofuel medium-speed genset. It has also stepped up its activities in Japan with the creation of JPN H2HYDRO, a joint venture with Tsuneishi (with whom it developed the HydroBingo) and the creation of partnerships to produce hydrogen on a large scale in Japan.

“One of the highlights of 2022 will surely be the launch of the Hydrotug, which will be the world’s first hydrogen-powered tug"

“It has been an incredibly busy year but 2022 will be even more busy,” says Saverys. “One of the highlights of 2022 will surely be the launch of the Hydrotug, which will be the world’s first hydrogen-powered tug (to operate in the Port of Antwerp) – and stay tuned for more innovations and announcements of more partnerships.”

In the shipping industry, late followers have usually outperformed early pioneers, notes Saverys. “We do, however, believe that this time can be different. The sheer magnitude of the challenge ahead will necessitate quick and agile action. Having gone through the development phase of our technology in the past six years, we are ready to scale up and bring our solutions to the market today, whereas some of our competitors are still stuck in feasibility analyses and prototyping.”

The absolute key to CMB’s hydrogen ‘journey’ is the adoption of a ‘dual fuel’ option as the first step to zero emissions. The company has developed the technology and established partnerships to rebuild engines to enable them to run as hybrid models – so that they use hydrogen as a preference and also have the ability to switch to diesel if there is no hydrogen available.

"we believe that dual fuel technology can also solve the ‘chicken and egg’ problem"

“For the next ten years, we do believe that dual fuel is the only possibility for clean shipping,” says Saverys. “The alternative of fuel cells has not reached market maturity and they are still too costly to be economical. Furthermore, we believe that dual fuel technology can also solve the ‘chicken and egg’ problem. Now you can’t bunker the clean fuel due to a lack of consumers. Dual fuel will help to create the infrastructure and will minimise the investments onboard the ship as we can limit the storage of the clean fuel to what we typically use. We don’t have to store the redundant fuel in case we have to deviate, or meet strong adverse currents or extreme bad weather, as we can always fall back on the proven diesel supply. Storage of the clean fuel is the most expensive added costs for a clean ship.”

He adds: “Batteries cannot offer the range and cannot support the high-power demand for our vessels, even if the weight/volume efficiency was tripled. LNG is, from the GHG point of view, not the right way forward – it is not even enough to comply with the targets of 2030. Hydrogen is the preferred technology for short sea shipping. For large ocean-going ships, ammonia will be the fuel of choice.”

CMB, which is privately owned, has offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Brentwood and Hamburg. The group’s activities cover a broad spectrum, including Bocimar (dry bulk shipping), Delphis (container shipping) and Bochem (chemical tankers), as well as real estate.

Its new innovation and development division, CMB.TECH, is responsible for bringing hydrogen to the industry, and dual fuel is very much the ‘first step’ to zero emissions. The company has even set up its own hydrogen fuelling station in Antwerp, where it is making hydrogen in situ through electrolysis – for supply to ships, trucks, buses and cars. It has also developed a mobile refueller, based on a trailer, which can be driven to the required location. While the focus is on green hydrogen, CMB is also studying and testing the possibilities for ammonia, which it says will be needed for large container ships, for example.

"Today, the largest carbon footprint of the offshore wind energy originates from these crew transfer vessels"

The acquisition of Windcat Workboats has another been an important step, says Saverys. “Windcat is the largest operator of crew transfer vessels supporting the offshore wind industry. Today, the largest carbon footprint of the offshore wind energy originates from these crew transfer vessels. So, the demand by wind farm owners for clean ships is already there.

“We identified that this industry will be pushing for clean ships and that it will be one of the first shipping segments where clean ships will be a necessity in order to offer any service. As this offshore wind energy business is facing a strong growth for the next decade, we see opportunities to build a large fleet of vessels powered by our dual fuel solution.”

Founded nearly 130 years ago, CMB is a family-owned business. Marketing and communications manager Katrien Hennin says: “Our management are entrepreneurs; they really believe in change and they really believe in the next generation. There are two options here – standing still and looking at the others, or make the changes. CMB has invested a significant sum in the technology to change the industry – and to do it now.” 

Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB)

This is a sponsored article by CMB, sponsors of the Maritime UK COP26 International Hub at City of Glasgow College.