Marine biofuel to support sustainable shipping

A renewable low-carbon transport fuels industry will support New Zealand to mitigate the effects of climate change.

While there’s been a lot of interest in what the aviation sector is doing to decarbonise, the shipping industry has fallen off the radar. But as Scion’s portfolio leader for Integrated Bioenergy, Dr Paul Bennett, points out, it’s responsible for growing global emissions. Scion has research underway to introduce cleaner technologies to this critical sector.

Shipping, while essential for trade, contributes significantly to the emissions that cause climate change. It is interesting to see the amount of attention and investment sustainable aviation fuel is getting now, which is counter to that of the maritime sector. However, the carbon dioxide emissions from both sectors are comparable.

Global shipping spews out 3% of worldwide greenhouse gases (GHG). While 3% might not seem titanic in scale, growth in demand for shipping worldwide means that maritime emissions have been accelerating faster than most other sectors. With a decrease in emissions from other sectors and no action in the maritime sector, shipping could be responsible for 10-13% of global emissions within a few decades.

Making shipping sustainable is critical if New Zealand is to become climate-neutral by 2050, with 99% of New Zealand’s international trade being transported by ship, equating to about 45% of GDP (or $162 billion to the economy) in 2021. If we don’t act quickly, it’s not just our environment that is at stake, but our economy as well. Major exporters of New Zealand produce are starting to become concerned about the carbon dioxide emissions associated with moving their products to markets, and markets are looking less favourably at produce with higher embedded carbon.

One approach is to jettison fossil-derived marine diesel and steer towards green solutions, such as sustainable liquid biofuels.

The challenge is that current green-fuel technologies still face headwinds before they are ready for wide-scale commercialisation.

There are several challenges to the use of biofuels, however, these can be adequately addressed through proper controls and regulations. For example, feedstocks being used for biofuels would need to adhere to standards to ensure the finished biofuel was sustainable.

There are certification schemes both in New Zealand and internationally that would ensure that this is the case. Also, commercially sold fuel must adhere to a tight set of rules to ensure efficient engine operation and prevent engine damage. Researchers at Scion are working to bring innovation in biofuel production technologies to the maritime sector. Our ambition is to drive down biofuel costs and find quicker ways of promoting clean energy, setting the course of the shipping industry towards net-zero CO2 emissions.

The system being developed at Scion takes waste biomass (such as forestry wood waste) and decomposes this thermally into vapour, which can be converted into a bio-oil, suitable for use as a drop-in replacement for fossil-based marine diesel fuel. Our Scion team has been seeking input, guidance and support from a range of stakeholders as they proceed with this work to ensure that they are on the right track from a technology perspective and, more importantly, that there is a demand from the market. Energy providers, shipping lines, ports, product exporters and potential investors have been engaged to validate the potential of this opportunity and help shape the path to market.

It’s work that has so far been a three-year labour of love for the researchers but is one that we believe supports global goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It also coincides with expectations for the shipping industry to do its bit to mitigate the effects of climate change. In 2018 the International Maritime Organisation developed a greenhouse gas initial strategy. This policy framework aims to cut annual greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by at least half by 2050 (compared with their level in 2008), and work towards phasing out greenhouse gas emissions entirely from shipping as soon as possible.

Dr Paul Bennett says the environment and New Zealand’s economy will benefit from the maritime sector adopting liquid biofuels.

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