In the race for zero-emission vessels, biofuels may prove the cheapest and easiest recourse
A heavyweight contract between French container shipping giant CMA CGM and Shell for tens of thousands of tonnes of zero-emissions marine biofuel is a game-changer in the biofuels industry.
A pioneer in alternative fuels, CMA CGM announced in mid-December that it will use the biofuel as a 20% blend with its low sulphur oil.
Galvanised by the global sulphur cap on shipping, the biofuels industry is pulling out all the stops to deliver zero- or low-emission alternatives in volume for an industry increasingly desperate for such fuels.
In the last few weeks alone specialist refiners have announced plans to scale up production; in mid-December, South Korea’s SK Chemicals launched a series of tests in which biodiesel was blended with petroleum-based fuels. “We see there will be great need for marine biofuels,” the head of the group’s energy and petrochemical business, An Jung-bum, told Reuters.
In the Netherlands, GoodFuels and biomass researcher BTG will start as soon as possible to convert pyrolysis oil, which is made from residues such as sawdust and even roadside grass cuttings, into 100% sustainable marine biodiesel for ships.
But this is only a demonstration plant, as BTG chief executive René Venendaal explained: “This initial capacity [of 1,000 tonnes of advanced marine fuel a year] is sufficient to demonstrate that the technology works and will serve as a basis for further scaling up of our operations.” He added: “The potential for growth in terms of sustainability is extremely high in this sector.”
GoodFuels has been working with shipping companies for at least five years, long enough for chief executive Dirk Kronemijer to state: “We have shown that these fuels will play an essential role in making shipping more sustainable.”
Another shipping group experimenting with biofuels is Netherlands-based Van Oord. Working with Shell in a large-scale pilot, Van Oord has found that emissions from ships using biofuel are slashed by more than 40% compared with conventional marine fuel. The first pilot project is on a dredger.
Also in the Netherlands, in early 2019 a group of Dutch multinationals including Shell joined forces with Moller Maersk to send a triple-E ocean vessel on a 25,000 nautical mile voyage from Rotterdam to Shanghai and back on a 20% blend of ‘second-generation’ biofuel. Rather than being made from specifically farmed crops, second-generation biofuels are derived from waste products such as cooking oil.
Shell, the world’s second-biggest charterer of tankers, is bullish on biofuels. The oil giant’s vice-president of shipping and maritime Graham Henderson told the Lloyd’s List Outlook 2020 forum in December: “We should be doing the very best that we can do today, not sitting back and waiting.”
According to a definitive report by the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) titled The Role of Sustainable Biofuels in the Decarbonisation of Shipping and released in early December 2019, biofuels could be the low-cost option in the pursuit of the gold medal of zero-emission shipping. The report found: “Biofuels derived from biomass may be an attractive option for the shipping sector and can be used as a feedstock to produce alcohol fuels such as ethanol and methanol, liquified biogas or biodiesel.”
The organisation’s executive director Andrew Stephens also highlighted advanced biofuels as “one of the most economically feasible options among a possible range of low/zero carbon fuels” if zero-emission vessel are to be launched by 2030.
However, as the report points out, the biofuels industry remains in its infancy and there are many uncertainties, such as scarcity and price, if demand should exceed supply.