Belgian shipowners’ family Saverys puts its money where its mouth is in taking the forefront of greening the world’s tanker business. Exmar, a leading player in transporting liquefied gas products like LPG, butane, propane, and ammonia, has ordered the world’s first two gas tankers that can run on the ammonia they transport.
Two 46 000 m³ LPG/ammonia midsize gas carriers (MGCs) are currently being constructed at the South Korea Hyundai Mipo Dockyard, propelled by dual-fuel ammonia engines from Swiss marine power company WinGD. Starting in 2026, when operational, they will be able to reduce emissions by 90% when using ammonia instead of diesel.
Dual fuel engines
The Swiss provider says that the two 52-bore X52DF‑A engines will be delivered in Q2 2025 and will be among the first of WinGD’s ammonia-fuelled engines to enter service. They are not only suited for ammonia carriers but also for a range of other vessel types that can benefit from ammonia as a fuel.
The X-DF-A engines have high-pressure ammonia injection supplemented by a low targeted dose of pilot (diesel) fuel, around 5%. Most ammonia engines need a certain amount of diesel or hydrogen to get them going. Performance and fuel efficiency will be similar to WinGD’s equivalent-sized diesel-fueled engines in both ammonia and diesel modes.
Ammonia molecules contain one part of nitrogen and three parts of hydrogen (NH3). Today, it is mostly made from natural gas, a non-sustainable process mainly used for fertilizers. However, it has applications in far more domains like wastewater treatment, cold storage, refrigeration systems, printing and cosmetics industries, and in the production of pharmaceuticals.
Liquified at -33°C
But there is a more sustainable way. The general idea is that ‘green’ hydrogen can be made in regions like the Middle East or Chile with a lot of solar and wind power, converted to ammonia by adding nitrogen and transported in ships to Europe. Once in Europe, it can easily be reconverted into hydrogen, which can be used for fuel cell vehicles.
Ammonia has the advantage that it can be liquified at -33°C and transported in colossal ammonia tankers, similar to today’s fleet of liquified natural gas tankers. For hydrogen to become liquid, it has to be cooled in cryogenic conditions to minus 253°C, making it more difficult and expensive to handle and distribute.
Burning ammonia in an internal combustion engine (ICE) is something the industry has envisioned so far for ships or heavy trucks but not for use in passenger cars due to its low flammability and its toxic character. Nevertheless, Chinese carmaker GAC showed in June 2023 the world’s first passenger car engine running on ammonia.
A tanker company like Exmar has extensive experience safely handling toxic ammonia. And what’s better suited to start with than a tanker that can use its own cargo load to propel its engines?
When leaks occur, introducing a toxic substance into the ship’s engine room is a severe risk to human operators. According to Exmar, “a risk-based design appraisal conducted by classification society Lloyds Register, combined with input from our seasoned crews and accepted by the Flag State (Belgium), has been paramount during the development process and will continue to guide further design enhancements.”
“As leading global transporters of ammonia, we are proud to be developing vessels with an operational carbon footprint reduction of 90%, which significantly exceeds the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s emissions reduction targets,” says Carl-Antoine Saverys, Executive Director at Exmar.
Joining a fleet of 17 MGCs
The two new midsize gas carriers will join an existing fleet of 17 MGCs, one of the world’s most modern midsize LPG fleets (20 000 – 46 000 m³). On top of that, Exmar runs three very large gas tankers (VLGC) up to 88 000 m³ and the LNG carrier Excalibur, 277 m long with a capacity of 138 034 m³.
Through its CMB (Compagnie Maritime Belge) shipping company, the Saverys family, next to being Exmar’s biggest shareholder, is also one of the major shareholders of Euronav, the world’s most extensive oil tanker fleet, headquartered in Antwerp, Belgium.
After a long fight over the direction Euronav should take in the future – CMB CEO Alexander Saverys also wants to green the oil tanker fleet – an agreement was reached just last week for the other major shareholder, Norwegian Frederiksen, to step out and buy 24 supertankers from Euronav, about a third of the total fleet to add to its own company Frontline.
CMB is putting just over a billion dollars on the table for Frontline’s stake in Euronav to stop all merger plans by continuing under the Belgian flag and sail a greener course.