Currently, there is no readily available fuel option that could replace heavy fuel oils in large freight and merchant ships. During their minor in Responsible Innovation stude

Boats, ferries and yachts. While most people have travelled on the first two, and a lucky few have had the privilege of travelling on the last, we continue to mirror our ancestors in the use of seaborne vessels for both leisure and business activities. At the largest scale in maritime travel, huge freight ships are crucial for the transportation of various goods, from coal to animal feeds and new cars to clothing.
In fact, seaborne trade accounts for more than 80% of the world’s merchandise trade by volume, according to a recent report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The same report also notes that there are currently more than 50,000 freight ships with a gross r
egister tonnage, or carrying capacity, of more than 1,000 tonnes in operation. Considerable fossil-based fuel resources are needed to help move theses ships around the oceans and seas of the world.

Sulphur issues

After the 2015 Paris Agreement, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) started regulating sulphur emission limits in the shipping industry, further highlighting the urgency for a ‘green shipping industry’. There is great reliance on heavy fuel oil, also known as bunker oil, in the shipping industry, and the resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions represents a notable problem for the world given the number of large tonnage freight ships currently in operation.
For example, if a ship is to continue using heavy fuel oil with a high sulphur content, the exhaust gases must be desulphurised using scrubbers. A potential alternative to these high sulphur content fuels is to turn to biofuels. However, the wholesale usage of biomass fuels in the shipping industry poses a considerable challenge.

Why biofuels and shipping?

Why is an alternative fuel for the shipping industry important, and why not just continue to use scrubbers to reduce pollution instead? According to a paper published in the journal Transportation Research Part D by H. Elizabeth Lindstad and her collaborators in Norway (2017), the use of scrubbers, particularly in larger vessels, will raise speeds and increase CO2 emission. In their paper, they promote the idea of regulating better quality and more expensive fuels as this will motivate shipping companies to lower cruise speeds, which will in turn lead to a decrease in CO2 emission.
An article by Paul Gilbert and his colleagues in the UK published in the Journal of Cleaner Production (2018) also emphasised the importance of alternative fuel options for shipping. Their article noted that although there is currently no fuel available that satisfies demands such as reducing pollutants and complying with existing regulations, some alternative fuels have the potential to replace the current heavy fuel oils. One viable option is biofuels, provided that two conditions are met. First, it needs efficient and sustainable land-use; and second, biofuels must be able to compete adequately with other fuel options. These conditions are crucial barriers that cannot be overcome by the shipping sector alone.

Overcoming barriers

One approach to overcome these barriers is to promote polycentric governance with regard to fossil fuel emissions, as indicated by Daria Gritsenko of the University of Helsinki in a paper published in the journal Marine Policy (2017). Polycentric governance is centred around multiple political, social or economic centres, such as the Randstad in the Netherlands. Polycentric order allows for experimental implementation on a smaller scale with fewer consequences if the implementation is unsuccessful. Gritsenko does not promote the idea of switching towards less accessible biofuels, but instead proposes the introduction of changes in ship design and operations that could lead to greater energy efficiency. It has been predicted that although the worldwide shipping trade in bioenergy will not necessarily grow, the supply of these materials is still expected to increase. This would alleviate the accessibility issue noted by Gritsenko.

A Fresh Outlook

Currently, there is no readily available fuel option that could replace the sulphur-rich heavy fuel oils in large freight and merchant ships. Nonetheless, the shipping industry, in collaboration with other relevant stakeholders, should look for potential new and fresh fuel alternatives. One such alternative is biofuels, which has already received considerable attention in the automobile industry. However, the wholesale implementation of biofuels will only take place after dedicated research and promotion in the appropriate industrial circles. Therefore, the best starting point is to clearly define regulations for a polycentric scale.

  • About this project

Jaap, Anna and Maurits are part of a Student Project Group (SPG) following a minor in Responsible Innovation, which is facilitated through the collaboration of the universities of Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam. Each university has a specific focus in the field of Responsible Innovation. The students follow courses and complete projects on responsible innovation, responsible management and ethics over two study blocks.

  • About Barry Fitzgerald

Barry W. Fitzgerald is a research scientist based at the Process & Energy Department of 3mE, TU Delft. His main research interests include biomass processing, polymer physics, fluid dynamics and granular materials. He is also actively involved in scientific communication outreach and has published the popular science book Secrets of Superhero Science. In addition, Barry is the editor-in-chief of the TU Delft hosted open access journal Superhero Science and Technology. Contact him here.

Also read: ‘Green shipping on the horizon' by master’s student Roberto Francica.