The sixth edition of the ISO 8217 marine fuel standard took an important step to normalise the use of biofuels in bunkers by introducing a new table of distillate grades which allow up to 7% fatty acid methyl ester(s) (FAME) content by volume.
There is resistance to this as fuels with FAME bring a range of handling issues, but it is in line with the maximum FAME content currently allowed in road diesel in most countries. The inclusion of biodiesel in road fuels has been actively encouraged for one purpose: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And since the Paris Agreement, the consensus is that the share of biofuels used in transport fuels will only grow.
Responding to climate change is a priority at the International Maritime Organization as well. While concrete targets have yet to be agreed, the latest meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee – featured elsewhere in this magazine – suggests IMO regulations will eventually push shipping toward carbon neutral fuels.
So what are our options, and how viable and sustainable are they? Research and development is pointing to a number of renewable power sources that hold promise for shipping, such as fuel cells and batteries, and even going back to using wind.
But what if we could replace the fossil-based liquid fuels of today with carbon-neutral ones? Can the bunker suppliers of the future contribute to efforts to stem global warming and climate change?
The main power source for ships today, heavy fuel oil, is a by-product from the efining of crude oil. Ships’ huge diesel engines turn what is in many respects a waste product into power, and does it with fuel efficiency that beats pretty much all other types of engines.
You could say this ability makes ships marvels of effective use of resources. But times are changing. Sulphur regulations are increasingly forcing ships to move away from HFO, unless they
install abatement technology, and somewhere down the line,
bunker fuels will need to be not only clean-burning, but also come from non-fossil sources.
But biofuels are not automatically
a good thing. Their GHG credentials are not indisputable as it depends on how they are produced, and there are other sustainability issues. “While they have been enthusiastically adopted in some countries, notably Brazil, first generation biofuels manufactured from crops like corn have proved controversial. There have been concerns that increased demand for crops drives the conversion of land to agriculture, with the consequent risks of an increase in deforestation, drainage of peatlands, loss of biodiversity, as well as associated usage of freshwater, fertilisers and pesticides,” says a July 2017 report from the UK Royal Academy of Engineering.
The report called “Sustainability of liquid biofuels” says biofuels have a role to play in climate change mitigation and sees a continued role for biofuels from some agricultural feedstocks, particularly where it can be grown on marginal land that is unsuitable for food production. But so-called second generation biofuels made from wastes and by-products of other sectors are better. “These might include converting waste cooking oil, municipal solid waste, the dregs from whisky manufacture or even fatbergs – the bane of sewer management companies – into useful fuel,” the report’s authors say.
Professor Adisa Azapagic FREng, Chair of the Academy’s working group on biofuels, says: “Second generation biofuels offer real prospects for the UK to make progress in reducing emissions from transport, particularly in sectors like aviation where liquid fuels are really the only option for the foreseeable future. Our report shows that, with the right safeguards and monitoring, biofuels from waste in particular are well worth pursuing from a sustainability point of view and also provide business opportunities for development.”
So perhaps the bunker fuels of the future will, like HFO today, continue to be based on wastes and by-products from other sectors.
In fact, there is a product that is itself a by-product of FAME that could be a contender. FAME is created during the transesterification of vegetable oils and animal fats to make biodiesel. This process creates glycerol as a by-product.
Glycerol appears to tick all the boxes for environmental performance, safety and technical feasibility to be used as a shipping fuel, but like with so many other alterative marine fuels, the commercial elements are lacking. Although production of glycerol exceeds demand in the sectors where it is normally used, namely in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food, there is not enough made globally to meet a significant share of demand from shipping, and the price isn’t right.
But moves are afoot that could change this: it is possible to produce glycerol, which can be refined into glycerine fuel, from algae. Dunaliella salina, a type of algae that grows in saline waters, can have very high yields of glycerol, needing only sunlight to grow and absorbing CO2 in the process. A group based at the University of Greenwich are working on commercialising a bio-refinery based on these algae. Cultivation could take place in saline water ‘farms’ in arid places and hence not disturb eco-systems, not take up valuable arable land or put pressure on food or fresh water supplies. According to a British company
called Aquafuel Research Ltd, the production of glycerine from salt water alga will be commercially demonstrated within the next three to four years.
Aquafuel was one of the key partners in a year-long project to examine the suitability of glycerine as an alternative fuel for the marine sector, which culminated with a practical demonstration of a marine generator using glycerine fuel in 2014.
The project partners of the research group, Glycerine for Engines and Marine Sustainability (GLEAMS), analysed the fuel’s emissions profile, the technical and practical side of using it, safety, supply factors
and economics. Apart from supply and the price of glycerine,
all came up trumps.
The project partners claimed that glycerine could be applied with minor modifications to existing ships, making retrofits reasonably priced. Surprisingly, once researches found a way to burn glycerine in a diesel engine (it is difficult to burn due to its high auto-ignition temperature and it has a high flash point of 160°C), it is said to burn significantly more efficiently than diesel. Moreover, it poses no major technical or operational challenges, and it has potentially no sulphur emissions. It is non-toxic (it is said to be so clean you can drink it and as already stated it is used in cosmetics); it is water soluble; and nearly impossible to ignite by accident. Hence it is both safe to handle and poses no environmental risk in the event of a spill.
Aquafuel is currently providing glycerine-fuelled generators producing electricity for Formula E, but there has been no further news on glycerine as a marine fuel since 2014. That may change as Paul Day, CEO of Aquafuel Research Ltd has confirmed to IBIA that the company is still interested in the marine sector and has “a potential project” in the area, and that work is continuing at Greenwich University to produce glycerol from algae.
The take up of biofuels in the shipping sector is currently very small. The main use so far has probably been by the US Navy, which was able to obtain government funds for research and development of advanced ‘drop-in’ 100% biofuels, widely seen as part of a bid for the US to be less dependent on oil imports. The container shipping giant Maersk has ran successful trials of biofuel blends, but these are not currently commercially viable.
Projections in a study released by the Danish Shipowners Association in late 2016, looking at various scenarios for shipping to move toward decarbonisation, suggests biofuels could provide anything from 10% to about 35% of the total marine fuel supply in 2050. The study assumed no difference in price between biofuels and conventional marine fuels in the modelling, making availability the key parameter.
That assumption doesn’t reflect the current reality, where the price of biofuels and other alternatives to conventional marine fuels remain key barriers to wider commercial usage in the marine sector. But if governments around the world take their commitments under the Paris Agreement seriously, incentives to increase production of sustainably sourced biofuels could make them both more widely available and commercially viable, including for the global marine transport sector.
Contact one of the World Bunkering team.