Hidden Costs Behind the IMO’s New Regulations For Marine Biofuels: EIA Webinar Review
by Michael Eggleston* (Advanced Biofuels USA) Challenged by strict, binding international targets to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and sulfur levels in fuels it is estimated that by 2020 the marine sector will need to modify or change about 80% of their current inventory.
Making up half the cost of shipping alone, the subject of changing fuels within the industry is a tricky one. Tackling this challenge is Claus Felby, Professor of Biomass and Bioenergy at University of Copenhagen, who stated that there are very limited options the marine sector has available to meet these new regulations. Earlier this month Felby presented results of his most recent work: Biofuels for the marine shipping sector in a webinar hosted by the International Energy Agency (IEA) for Bioenergy and sponsored by the Canadian Institute of Forestry.
Finding the needle in the hay stack
Since marine engines already operate at constant revolutions, switching over to electromobility wouldn’t cut the current efficiency standard of today’s fleet, explained Felby.
The sector is currently looking at solving the issue of reducing sulfur levels by using more refined fuels, an operation done at the oil refinery. This will not only add extra cost, but it will also increase the CO2 emissions associated with the fuel as more refining will be required, Felby disclosed.
If low sulfur fuels are not used, scrubbers need to be installed to remove the sulfur emissions. Unfortunately, the down side to scrubbers is that they take up extra space and require an extra cost to discharge their waste water, he mentioned.
Another solution to reduce sulfur emissions is to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) as fuel, but this requires a refitting of the engines, and pressurized fuel storage needs to be installed onboard, not to mention the lack of existing infrastructure for LNG at existing fuel stations. Other fuels such as methanol are used to a smaller degree with the latest generation of diesel engine technology, but are still at a supply infrastructure premature state.
Biofuels: An opportunity and a bottleneck
At this point Felby introduced the role biofuels could play to support the sector in meeting these strict regulations. There is a window of opportunity, Felby stated, as biofuels are low in sulfur and could decrease CO2 emissions depending on the feedstock, however, these fuels are not ready to meet future demand.
Since marine engines are exponentially bigger than automotive engines, scaling up engine tests will require a massive amount of biomass to meet industrial needs. This will require an effort by the biofuels industry more than they are used to said Felby.
Of the current biofuels commercially available, only plant biodiesel derived from plant oil or pulping residues are eligible to be used as drop-in fuels with current existing infrastructure. Unfortunately, these feedstocks are not ready to meet demand at the level in which they are produced. Another issue is that the plant oil based fuels are the main fuel type currently used at a significant scale for bio jet fuels, leading to competition for feedstocks between the shipping and aviation sectors.
Therefore, Felby suggested that the only feedstock available to meet the sector demand is second generation bioethanol. This may be used with new engine technology which requires heavy investment from shipping companies which can run on a mix of heavy oil, LNG, methanol and ethanol in a diesel cycle. This keeps the technology neutral but is still a hefty investment.
Felby suggested to keep it simple. By dissolving lignin in ethanol, it keeps the process cheap after investing in a new engine. If lignin is to be dissolved in ethanol however, it needs to be free of sulfur. Felby recommended to just remove the salts from the biomass and extract the lignin as is or to use hydrolysis or biorefined lignin.
What’s the catch?
Bioethanol can be sustainably produced from waste and lignocellulosic feedstocks, with much higher supply potential, capable of replacing all fossil fuels in the shipping sector, but is not compatible with current marine diesels, and cannot be used as a drop-in fuel.
Felby concluded by stating that the sector needs to think about how they can deliver the readiness that is needed to scale up these fuels effectively. This will require cooperation based projects and the intent to harmonize best shared practices within the industry.
IEA Bioenergy, also known as the Technology Collaboration Programme (TCP) for Research, Development and Demonstration on Bioenergy, functions within a Framework created by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Views, findings and publications of IEA Bioenergy do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the IEA Secretariat or of its individual Member countries.
* Michael Eggleston is an aspiring policymaker studying interdisciplinary & intercultural communication with the University of Rhode Island’s International Engineering Program. He is spending a semester abroad at the Technische Universität Darmstadt in Darmstadt, Germany and will be reporting on and representing Advanced Biofuels USA at international conferences surrounding Europe’s energy transition.