Future fuels must be safe to seafarers!

SeafarersTalentWorking conditionsSafety

James Helliwell, the winner of the Future Maritime Leaders essay competition, underlines the need to put human sustainability and seafarer safety at the forefront before introducing new zero emission fuels which bring new safety risks.

Imagine this: it’s 2030, you’re the engineer on duty in the control room of a new ship, powered with a zero-carbon fuel called ammonia. An alarm sounds. You check your control panel and you see you have a fire in your engine room and a gas leak in your main fuel system.

You race towards the back of your control room and grab your breathing apparatus. You pull on your HazMat suit. You pull the oxygen mask over your head and turn on the oxygen supply. Next, you look at each of your team members in turn, checking if they’ve got their own masks fitted correctly and their own oxygen supply turned on. Your team grabs the nearest fire extinguisher, and you sprint out of the control room towards the fire.

You get to the main engine and in the time, it has taken you to get your safety equipment on it is fully ablaze. Your team starts to fight the fire and after a short, hot battle you get the fire extinguished. But what about the fuel leak? You know there’s a leak, you can’t see it, and you know it will kill you. You start to switch on your gas detector when you notice one of your team is missing. As the smoke from the fire starts to clear up, you see your colleague and friend lying motionless on the floor. You notice that in the rush to go and fight the fire, they didn’t fit the seal on their oxygen mask properly and they died from inhaling ammonia.

This may sound like an overdramatized and unrealistic scenario, but this could be the future that our seafarers soon have to face. Even today, fires on conventional ships occur at an alarming rate. As reported by the International Institute of Marine Surveying, fires on containerships alone in 2020 occurred at a rate of one fire every two weeks.

The global maritime industry is in a marathon race to find a new zero-carbon fuel to tackle its emissions problem. That race is between two fuels: hydrogen and ammonia. Academics, industry leaders, regulators, and other key stakeholders debating the selection of a future fuel tend to limit discussions to practical items such as how to store each fuel, how to use it, and its impact on reducing emissions. Very rarely, if ever, do you hear mention of the impact of these fuels on our seafarers. The ramifications of changing to a zero-carbon fuel make some of the other human sustainability issues (working rights, wellbeing, and training) seem small in comparison.

Recent tests undertaken by the Department for Homeland Security in a desert in Utah show that just two tonnes release of ammonia remained harmful to human beings at a distance of over 800 meters away. Last year, an ammonia leak on a ship off the coast of Malaysia killed one and injured three crew members. Is this really something we want on our ships? Is hydrogen the alternative? Whilst hydrogen has its own safety challenges (high flammability and explosivity), these challenges are at least similar to the hazards of the hydrocarbon fuels we use today. With hydrogen, we can at least give our seafarers a chance in being able to respond to a hydrogen fire without fear of inhaling an invisible, toxic gas cloud.

So, what’s my point? As part of the drive to become a sustainable, low-emission industry, we can’t afford to overlook the human element in the selection of new fuels. Human sustainability needs to be put at the forefront of the decision to select a sustainable fuel. Leading stakeholders and thought leaders in our industry need to advocate for studies to be undertaken to look at how people onboard our ships interact with these new fuels. If there is a fuel leak, how will the engineer go and fix it? If there’s a fire, how do they go about fighting it? How would having an ammonia fuel onboard have changed the outcome of recent maritime incidents and disasters?

As an industry, we cannot walk blindly into choosing a new fuel purely on its carbon credentials without giving serious thought to the impact this may have on those onboard. A ship isn’t just a place of work, it’s a home for a family of people that live onboard for months at a time. Can people sleep safely in their beds at night with ammonia being pumped through piping just a few decks below? As an industry, we need to undertake the studies and research today to get to the answers to these questions.

The drive to decarbonize has the potential to be the biggest threat to ever face human sustainability. Whilst decarbonizing is vitally important, if we don’t get it right and chose the wrong fuel, every effort over the last century to improve wellbeing will have been in vain. We are at the precipice of selecting a fuel that can put thousands of people in direct harm. We need to do the research now, before it’s too late, to understand the impact these fuels have on people working every day on our ships.

James Helliwell is a 27-year-old Project Engineer with Shell in London.