Ammonia: Future of Marine Fuel or Hazardous Choice?

Along with the recent IMO’s Global Emission Reduction Project, the maritime industry is actively searching for alternative fuels to reduce the harmful greenhouse gas emissions of ships. Among the potential candidates, ammonia has gained increasing attention due to its numerous advantages. It is readily available and can be transported and stored with ease. Additionally, it has the potential to greatly reduce carbon emissions, making it a promising option.

However, like any fuel, ammonia carries the risk of accidental release, which can lead to detrimental consequences. Join us as we explore the potential of ammonia as a marine fuel and investigate the effects of accidental release and possible mitigation measures.

Introduction to Ammonia as a Marine Fuel

Ammonia is a gas that has gained attention as a potential fuel for the maritime industry due to its high energy density and easy storage and transportation. Unlike traditional fuels, ammonia does not emit carbon dioxide when burned, making it a promising alternative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is essential to note that ammonia does emit nitrogen oxides, which can contribute to air pollution. In light of this, it is imperative to handle and store ammonia with care to prevent any accidental release and mitigate associated risks.

Consequences of Accidental Release

The accidental release of ammonia during bunkering operations poses a significant threat to human health and safety. Ammonia is a highly toxic gas that can cause severe health issues, such as respiratory problems, burns, and even fatalities if inhaled in high concentrations.

In addition to the health risks to humans, the release of ammonia can also harm aquatic life and contribute to eutrophication. When ammonia enters water bodies, it can create conditions that promote the growth of harmful algae and other aquatic plants, leading to harmful algal blooms and fish deaths. These blooms can also consume oxygen, leading to the creation of hypoxic zones where marine life cannot survive.

One of the most common causes of accidental release of ammonia from a bunkering vessel is the rupture of connecting hoses or pull-away incidents. Catastrophic hose rupture can rapidly release ammonia into the environment, posing a danger to personnel in the surrounding area. A 3% lethality footprint is used as a reference point to evaluate the potential impact of accidental release. This measure indicates that, during ship-to-ship bunkering, the maximum impact distance is 1.3km, while for shore-to-ship bunkering, it is 400m.

Ammonia is not only toxic but also highly reactive and can form explosive mixtures when it comes into contact with air. Thus, there is a potential risk of fire or explosion, which can cause severe damage to ships and nearby structures in case of accidental release. The impact distance varies according to the time of day and the type of bunkering operation. For instance, during ship-to-ship bunkering, the maximum impact distance is larger during the day than at night. In contrast, for shore-based scenarios, the maximum impact distance is larger at night than during the day.

Apart from health and safety concerns, the release of ammonia during bunkering operations can result in significant economic losses, given the expensive and time-consuming clean-up efforts that may follow. Therefore, it is essential to consider all these factors when developing safety protocols for ammonia bunkering.

Mitigation Measures

As the maritime industry considers the use of ammonia as a potential fuel source, it is vital to prioritise measures that prevent accidental release and mitigate associated risks. The proper handling and storage of ammonia play a critical role in ensuring safe bunkering operations, including the use of appropriate equipment and procedures that minimise the risk of leaks and spills. Crew members must also receive proper training and education on safe handling and emergency response procedures to minimise the risks associated with ammonia bunkering.

Various technologies are available to help remove ammonia from the ambient or redirect it to designated areas where it cannot pose any risks. One of the most widely used measures is the water curtain, which creates a barrier that separates the ammonia from the surrounding environment and reduces the risk of exposure during accidental leaks or spills.

However, ongoing research and development are necessary to improve the efficacy of water curtains and ensure their suitability for different scenarios. This includes identifying the optimal configuration and location of water curtains, accounting for potential wind and wave conditions, and developing new materials and coatings to improve the durability and safety of equipment used during bunkering.

Additionally, new sensors and monitoring systems can help to detect leaks and other issues early on, enabling prompt response and mitigation. These advanced technologies include remote sensing technologies and real-time monitoring systems that provide operators with a continuous stream of data on the status of the bunkering process. Such systems can detect and alert operators to potential issues, allowing quick and effective responses to prevent or mitigate accidents.

Developing new technologies and procedures is crucial to reduce the risks associated with ammonia bunkering and promoting the safe and sustainable use of ammonia as a marine fuel. By investing in research and development, the industry can better ensure the secure handling and storage of ammonia, protect human health and safety, and minimise the environmental impact of accidental releases.


As a highly efficient fuel source with zero carbon emissions, ammonia is an attractive alternative to traditional fuels. However, it is critical to prioritise safety and the prevention of accidental releases to ensure that the benefits of ammonia as a marine fuel can be fully realised.

Through ongoing efforts to improve safety protocols and technology, the marine industry can continue exploring ammonia’s potential as a sustainable fuel source. With a focus on responsible implementation and continuous improvement, ammonia can play a valuable role in the transition towards a more environmentally friendly and sustainable future.

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