Q&A: Captain Thomas Hvilborg, Mette Maersk


A.P Moeller-Maersk, the world's largest carrier, launched an ambitious project in March 2019 to see if biofuels could be the future of container shipping, as part of a collaboration with the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition (DSGC), which includes Shell, Heineken, Unilever, FrieslandCampina and DSM. 

The project saw the Triple-E ocean vessel Mette Maersk travel from Rotterdam to the Chinese port of Shanghai on a blend-based biofuel alone. In this case, the biofuel was produced entirely on waste sources, in particular, cooking oil. 

In an exclusive interview with PTI, the captain of the Mette Maersk Thomas Hvilborg speaks about the initiative and what the future effect might be on container shipping. 


PTI: How would you describe the Rotterdam-Shanghai biofuel voyage so far, has the fact that it is such a historic pilot made it unusual in any way?

TH: Sailing Mette Maersk on a first biofuel pilot in maritime history for this type of vessel and on this long journey was an exciting assignment but at the same time as a team, we were also a bit anxious as it was the first time we were doing it. In the beginning, the engineers were making extra turns making sure everything works well but quite fast we concluded that it was business as usual. The engine was running perfectly, we tested running it on high as well as a minimum load of biofuel and it was all fine. Everything was smooth and the journey was normal without any issues along the way.


Credit: Maersk


PTI You’ve been captain of the Mette Maersk for more than two years, are you proud of the fact it is your ship is undertaking this historic pilot?

TH: This had made me very proud. It was a great opportunity to take part in this pilot not only for me but for every member of the crew who was onboard Mette Maersk. I am even more proud as this is something that is good for the environment as the ocean is my workplace and has such a bit impact on my life. In addition, I have also received amazing feedback from people all around the world who follow me on social media about this fantastic initiative we as a company are taking.



A recent Port Technology technical paper looked at the industry's journey towards eco-friendly shipping


PTI: Where does rank in your career, is it one of your highlights?

TH: It is definitely up there as one of the highlights of my career. On the previous vessel I was working, I was also part of retrofit which was also something super interesting to be part of as it is also about saving energy and focusing on being environment-friendly. For me, it is very important that we as a company are taking these steps towards the environment. This is something we will look back at in the future and say that it was one of the turning points on how we took care of the planet.


Credit: Maersk


PTI: What have been the biggest technological changes you’ve seen in container shipping?

TH: Just because the vessels are getting bigger, that doesn’t mean that the engines are as well. Instead, we are having more fuel-efficient engines and fuel consumption per container is dropping. The biggest technological changes are those having such good impact on the environment. For example, the retrofit of the G-Class vessel, which I was working on before, meant changed propellers which also are playing an important part when it comes to sustainability. 



PTI: Can you imagine a time when biofuels such as the one used for this voyage are commonplace in commercial shipping?

TH: I have been told it is considerably more expensive to use biofuel so I hope that the demand of it from customers will increase which will make companies use it more and create a movement in the industry of its usage. I personally think this will take time and is a bit of a domino effect starting with an increase in demand which will drive this change however I really do hope that if this is the right solution we start using it in the future for the well-being of all of us as we need to make changes.


Credit: Maersk


PTI: What would you say are the key steps towards achieving environmentally friendly shipping?

TH: Maersk as a company is already doing some fantastic initiatives to minimize the effect on the environment we as a company have, testing alternative fuels just being one of them. With our retrofit program we are around 10% ahead of the industry with everything we have done so far, this reduces 41% of our emissions per container.

Recently we also announced our ambition to become zero carbon neutral by 2050. However, I believe that there is just as much as a company we can do we also need the support from customers and the industry for all of us to drive these changes and find sustainable solutions. Everyone should be onboard. There is a need to speed up investigation solution to make sure that there are commercially viable vessels by 2028/2030.

I was so proud to see that the Mette Maersk biofuel voyage initiated by some of our customers in the Netherlands via DSGC and really hope that we will see more of similar initiatives in the future.



PTI: The results of the pilot are expected to be analyzed later in the year once the voyage is completed, what are you hoping they’ll show?

TH: I am really hoping that it will show positive results and that it is something which should be used, as it was really easy to sail on it, however, I do understand that there is so much involved to analyze the outcome. It is important to find a solution which the vessels can run on which doesn’t have any impact on any safety or any of the technical parts of the vessel.

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