What Fuel Do Cargo Ships Use?



Cargo ships are a vital component of the global economy, transporting goods and raw materials across oceans and between continents. However, these massive vessels require vast amounts of fuel to power their engines and propel them through the water. This raises the question: what type of fuel do cargo ships use?

The answer to this question is not straightforward, as there are several different types of fuel that cargo ships can use, depending on a variety of factors. Traditionally, most cargo ships have used heavy fuel oil (HFO) or marine gas oil (MGO), both of which are derived from crude oil.

What Fuel Do Cargo Ships Use.

However, in recent years, there has been growing interest in alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and biofuels, which are seen as more environmentally friendly options. Understanding the pros and cons of each type of fuel is crucial for anyone interested in the shipping industry or concerned about the impact of cargo ships on the environment.

Types of Fuel Used in Cargo Ships

Cargo ships use a variety of fuels to power their engines. The most common types of fuel used in cargo ships are Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) and Diesel. However, with the increasing focus on reducing emissions and environmental impact, alternative fuels are gaining popularity. Here are some of the main types of fuel used in cargo ships:

Heavy Fuel Oil

Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) is a residual fuel that is left over after the refining process. It is a thick, viscous liquid that requires heating to be used in engines. HFO is the most commonly used fuel in cargo ships due to its low cost. However, it is also the most polluting fuel, emitting high levels of sulfur and other harmful pollutants.


Diesel is a refined fuel that is used in many vehicles, including cargo ships. It is a cleaner fuel than HFO, emitting lower levels of pollutants. However, it is also more expensive than HFO.

Marine Gas Oil (MGO)

Marine Gas Oil (MGO) is a lighter, cleaner, and more refined fuel than both HFO and Diesel. It is used in many modern cargo ships due to its lower sulfur content and reduced emissions. While MGO is more expensive than HFO, it is often required in Emission Control Areas (ECAs) where stricter regulations apply to reduce the environmental impact of shipping.

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is a cleaner-burning fuel that is becoming increasingly popular in cargo ships. It is a gas that is cooled to -162°C, which turns it into a liquid. LNG emits lower levels of pollutants than HFO and Diesel, and also produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Dual-fuel engines are another significant development in the maritime industry’s efforts to reduce emissions. These engines have the ability to operate on a combination of conventional fuels like diesel or heavy fuel oil, as well as cleaner alternative fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Dual-fuel engines provide versatility and flexibility in fuel choice, offering a more sustainable option for cargo ships. To learn more about the benefits and applications of dual-fuel engines in the shipping industry, check out our article on ‘The Overview of Dual Fuel Engine in a Ship’.


Biofuels are fuels that are produced from renewable resources, such as plant matter or animal waste. They are a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, emitting lower levels of pollutants. However, they are not yet widely used in cargo ships due to the limited availability of biofuels and the high cost of production.


Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel that emits only water when burned. It is a promising alternative to fossil fuels, but it is not yet widely used in cargo ships due to the high cost of production and the lack of infrastructure for storing and transporting hydrogen.


Ethane is a gas that is produced during the refining process of natural gas. It is a cleaner-burning fuel than HFO and Diesel, emitting lower levels of pollutants. However, it is not yet widely used in cargo ships due to the limited availability of ethane.


Methane is a gas that is produced during the refining process of natural gas. It is a cleaner-burning fuel than HFO, Diesel, and MGO, emitting lower levels of pollutants. Methane is also the main component of LNG.


Ammonia is a gas that is produced from nitrogen and hydrogen. It is a promising alternative to fossil fuels, emitting only water and nitrogen when burned. However, it is not yet widely used in cargo ships due to the high cost of production and the lack of infrastructure for storing and transporting ammonia.


Methanol is a clean-burning fuel derived from natural gas, biomass, or even carbon dioxide. It has a lower environmental impact compared to conventional fuels like Heavy Fuel Oil and Diesel. Methanol is gaining interest as a marine fuel due to its low emission profile and the ease of converting existing engines to run on it. However, its adoption in cargo ships is still limited due to factors such as fuel availability and infrastructure development.

Battery-Electric Propulsion

Battery-electric propulsion systems are increasingly being considered for short-distance shipping routes. These systems use large batteries to store electrical energy, which powers electric motors that propel the ship. Battery-electric ships produce no emissions during operation and can be charged using renewable energy sources, making them an environmentally friendly option. However, the limited range and long charging times currently make battery-electric propulsion impractical for long-distance cargo shipping.

In conclusion, cargo ships use a variety of fuels to power their engines. While Heavy Fuel Oil and Diesel are the most commonly used fuels, alternative fuels such as Liquefied Natural Gas, Biofuels, Hydrogen, Ethane, Methane, and Ammonia are gaining popularity due to their lower levels of pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

Fuel Consumption and Emissions

Fuel Consumption

Cargo ships are powered by large marine diesel engines, which are highly efficient and can consume large quantities of fuel. On average, a cargo ship can burn through 20 to 70 tons of fuel per day and up to 400 tons per day, depending on its size and speed. The fuel consumption of a cargo ship is directly proportional to its speed – the faster it goes, the more fuel it burns.

The type of fuel used by cargo ships is known as bunker fuel, which is a heavy, viscous, and low-quality fuel. Bunker fuel is a byproduct of the refining process and has high sulfur content, which makes it a cheap option for shipping companies. However, the use of bunker fuel results in high emissions of pollutants.


The emissions from cargo ships are a significant contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The combustion of bunker fuel releases various pollutants, including sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), and carbon dioxide (CO2).

The sulfur content in bunker fuel is one of the primary causes of air pollution from shipping. When burned, sulfur in the fuel forms sulfur oxides, which can cause respiratory problems and contribute to acid rain. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has set limits on the sulfur content of marine fuels to reduce the emissions of SOx.

The emissions of nitrogen oxides from shipping contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory problems and damage crops. The IMO has also set limits on the emissions of NOx from ships.

The particulate matter emitted from ships can cause respiratory problems and contribute to climate change. The emissions of particulate matter from shipping are also regulated by the IMO.

Carbon emissions from shipping contribute to climate change and are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. The IMO has set targets for reducing the carbon emissions from shipping, and various measures are being implemented to achieve these targets.

Overall, the fuel consumption and emissions from cargo ships have significant environmental impacts. While measures are being taken to reduce the emissions from shipping, more needs to be done to ensure that shipping is sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Environmental Impact and Sustainability

Cargo ships are responsible for a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. Heavy fuel oil (HFO) is the primary fuel used by cargo ships, and it is a highly polluting fuel with high levels of sulfur, nitrogen, and particulate matter emissions. These emissions contribute to air pollution and can have negative effects on human health and the environment, including acid rain, smog, and respiratory problems.

The shipping industry is looking for ways to reduce its environmental impact and increase sustainability. Sustainable marine fuels are a recognized pathway for lowering GHG emissions compared to HFO and other petroleum fuels. These fuels are produced from renewable sources such as biomass, waste, and wind power, and they emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases than traditional fossil fuels.

Alternative fuels, such as hydrogen and ammonia, are also being explored as potential replacements for HFO. These fuels have the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the environmental sustainability of the shipping industry. However, more research and development is needed to make these fuels viable alternatives to HFO.

In addition to using cleaner fuels, cargo ships can also reduce their environmental impact by improving their efficiency. This can be achieved through measures such as optimizing shipping routes, reducing vessel speed, and implementing energy-efficient technologies. These measures can help to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, while also reducing operating costs for shipping companies.

Overall, the shipping industry has a significant impact on the environment, and it is important to find ways to reduce this impact and increase sustainability. The use of sustainable marine fuels and alternative fuels, as well as improvements in efficiency, can help to achieve these goals and ensure a more sustainable future for global trade.

International Regulations

Cargo ships are subject to various international regulations that dictate the type of fuel they can use. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, is responsible for setting these regulations that aim to reduce emissions and promote sustainable shipping practices.

One of the most significant regulations is the IMO’s MARPOL Convention, which sets limits on the sulfur content of fuel used by ships. The convention has been amended several times, with the latest amendment (MARPOL Annex VI) introducing a global sulfur cap of 0.50% on fuel used by ships, effective from January 1, 2020. This cap applies to all ships, regardless of their flag state or nationality, and is expected to reduce sulfur oxide emissions from ships by approximately 77%.

In addition to the sulfur cap, the IMO has also set limits on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from ships. These limits are outlined in MARPOL Annex VI and apply to ships built after January 1, 2016, operating in certain designated emission control areas (ECAs). The ECAs are areas where stricter emissions standards apply, and they currently include the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the English Channel.

To comply with these regulations, cargo ships have several options. They can switch to low-sulfur fuels, such as marine gas oil (MGO) or ultra-low sulfur fuel oil (ULSFO). Alternatively, they can install scrubbers, which are systems that remove sulfur oxides from the ship’s exhaust gases. Another option is to use alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) or biofuels, which produce lower emissions than traditional marine fuels.

Despite these regulations, some experts argue that more needs to be done to reduce the environmental impact of shipping. For example, the IMO has been criticized for not setting more stringent targets for greenhouse gas emissions from ships. However, the organization has recently adopted a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships by at least 50% by 2050, compared to 2008 levels. This strategy includes a range of measures, such as improving energy efficiency, promoting the use of low-carbon fuels, and developing new technologies.

Dmitry S

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