MAN ES 2-stroke R&D chief prepares for multi-fuel future

Brian Østergaard Sørensen, Vice President, Head of R&D 2-Stroke Business, at MAN Energy Solutions, looks back at technological developments and discusses the challenges of choosing between research priorities.

From an engine design and operation perspective, what do you think have been the most important technological innovations during your career?

Although the introduction of electronic controlled engines into the two-speed portfolio occurred relatively recently, it has been the foundation of many of the recent developments that have occurred in the industry, such as emissions control, advanced engine control and monitoring solutions and the new generations of gas-fuelled engines. Taking a wider view, electronic controlled engines also laid the foundations for the introduction of digitalisation solutions into the marine propulsion market. [The development of the ME-concept engine by MAN Diesel engineers in the early 2000s – as well as the launch of the 32/44CR all electronic four-stroke – represented advances in electronically controlled fuel injection].

Looking ahead, digitalisation is a rapidly developing area. It is a common thread running through all aspects of our business – it touches everything from how we sell spare parts to how we utilise data within R&D. It is inevitable that it will increase – and I expect it to alter our business model in the future, whether that is through subscriptions for higher value services, condition based monitoring or other solutions.

As a master mariner who subsequently qualified in mechanical engineering, how do you see the future role of the internal combustion engine? Will it remain the prime mover for marine transportation in the future?

Two-stroke engines offer unchallenged efficiency, and we expect to achieve further advances in the coming years using combined cycle technologies (such as Organic Rankine Cycle solutions), for example. I believe that two-stroke engine technology will remain the prime mover of deep-sea shipping. However, the range of fuels will change in the future as we leave a monofuel world – LNG, methanol and perhaps ammonia might play a larger role in the fuel mix. The fuels being consumed may also vary according to the route and operating profile, which will increase demand for fuel flexibility among ship operators.

Without a doubt, we expect to see an evolution in the integration of power systems aboard vessels. Staying abreast of developments in battery and fuel cell technology, for example, is paramount to the success of MAN as a company.

You mention combined cycle technologies as an interesting area for research. Looking at MAN engines after a century of continuous research, are we approaching a limit for how much more efficient the engines can become?

If you had asked engineers a decade ago, they would have told you current efficiencies were unachievable! We are working towards further improving the efficiency of our portfolio of diesel fuelled engines, and will be targeting improvements in engine management, via our new engine control system, as well as broader digitalisation improvements. This is a key area of focus for MAN.

We are continuing to pursue research into combined cycle technologies (such as power turbines, steam turbines or Organic Rankine Systems) to utilise waste heat recovery as a means of improving the efficiency of the engine. We are also looking at other ways of integrating our engines into other shipboard systems – such as using excess air to drive other systems. The growth in refrigerated alternative fuels, such as LNG, has also opened up the area of ‘waste cold recovery’ from fuel gas supply systems, for example.

Given the pace of technological development, how do you choose which areas to focus your research?

Compared with the world of 15 years ago, we have to choose from a wide range of different research areas including advanced combustion and spray injection modelling technology; improvements in digitalisation techniques; engine monitoring and control and emerging energy management issues.

It is important to prioritise and maintain focus when undertaking research projects. (The Motorship noted that MAN ES successfully developed its new low pressure ME-GA engine platform under a compressed development timetable. The engine remains on schedule for the early 2022 commercial launch deadline.)

Commercial considerations also need to be borne in mind: we need to develop engine platforms that are scalable. If we utilise common components on engine platforms as far as possible, this minimises the number of variants.

In addition, 10 or 15 years ago, we were dealing with a monofuel world. As a supplier to the industry, we have to prepare for the emergence of new fuels, so that we have the solutions on the shelf when the customer needs them. These new fuels, and combinations of fuels, all have different characteristics compared with diesel fuel, which has knock-on implications for engine research. To give one example, methanol and ammonia are both low lubricity fuels that have poor combustion characteristics.

Luckily, we don’t have to do everything ourselves. There are areas where we benefit from collaborations with partners. We have established links with a number of technical universities in pre-commercial and ‘blue sky’ research areas. For commercial development work, we have long-standing relationships with several engine manufacturer licensees, while we also see increasing opportunities for research with industrial partners.

What are the next areas for improvements in efficiency?

Having successfully lowered SFOC in our latest engine platforms by increasing combustion pressures, we are looking at finding the sweet spot between improved fuel efficiency and minimising emissions. Finding the correct balance is a challenge.

Sequential injection, an established technology on common rail engines, permits each injection valve to fire individually. The advantage from an engine designer’s perspective is that the fuel mix can be modified dynamically, permitting very rapid changes in fuel air ratios. The sequential injection technology ensures an additional tool in our toolbox for securing that we can hit the sweet spot between engine efficiency and engine emissions. We have recently added sequential injection to our portfolio on our largest engines.

As the development of new engines with increased combustion pressures are not only increasing mechanical stresses but are also increasing heat load of combustion chamber components, we are of course also focusing on development of new materials with improved resistance against mechanical and thermal loading to secure improved/enhanced reliability of combustion chamber components

Further all the new control strategies including the new control strategies for engines operating as dual fuel or triple fuels are increasing the requirements for control hardware, we will begin rolling out a new engine control system, TRITON, across our electronically-controlled engine portfolio over the next few years. The TRITON engine control system will be introduced as a standard solution on new electronically controlled engines and will offer a number of benefits.

These benefits include enhanced control. This will be fundamental to two new efficiency solutions that MAN ES is launching: sequential injection and gas optimisation.

However, as I mentioned, we are also seeing the impact of digitalisation solutions on efficiency. Improved access to engine data will improve our insight into the performance of our engines. The latter will lead to improvements in long-term engine performance as we get improved access to operational data from our engines.

This focus on improved reliability is part of our medium-term goal to eliminate unplanned maintenance between dry docks by 2030. In other words, we want to develop platforms that are more efficient, without an reduction in operational reliability.

There is another aspect to operational efficiency. Our customers will also be able to achieve greater efficiencies by using data. You can have a highly efficient car, but the fuel efficiency you achieve will vary depending on how you drive it. [Early in his career, Sørensen spent a period as deck officer at sea]. Improved monitoring of components and engine performance help us provide support to crew members and colleagues located ashore.

Finally, how do you feel the recent Covid-19 situation has affected customer interest in alternative fuels?

It is perfectly true that the recent Covid-19 situation is likely to have an impact on customers’ appetite for investing in the short-term. But I don’t think that the recent interest in fuel efficiency measures has just been a function of high fuel prices. The drivers of the decarbonisation agenda are regulations, and social pressures – and ultimately a wider energy transition that is starting to occur.

We are receiving increasing enquiries from across the world – from both large and small owners, as well as brokers and financiers – who want to understand the technology. At MAN, we have an important role to play in making the technology available. We can show the way towards what is possible and can also support the transition.

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