Clean Fuels in the Maritime Sector: Solutions in Sight, or Still a Long Way Out?
Updated: Feb 21
"HFO byproducts are highly carcinogenic and can quickly cause cancer, lung and respiratory disease, and more."
We’ve discussed the threat of Black Carbon in Antarctic regions before, but we have yet to dive deeply into the struggles with integrating modern, clean fuels into a more expansive part of the maritime sector.
For more than a century now, most maritime operators have used Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) as their go-to source of fuel for their ships. Why? Well, it’s relatively inexpensive and ‘energy dense’ - which means ships can travel long distances with just a small amount of the fuel.
However, HFOs are also known as residual fuel oils - a sticky textured, viscous, tar-like substance that leaves behind nasty residues after combustion. During combustion, a ton of harmful toxins like paraffin, aromatics, elofin, sulfur, nitrogen, and heavy metals are released into the atmosphere, and black carbon soot molecules precipitate out of the air and settle into the water or on the surface of ice caps. When black carbon molecules settle on ice caps or snow, they absorb sunlight and, ultimately, heat - and accelerate melt rates considerably.
While HFO is an “energy-dense” fuel, its byproducts cause extreme harm to the environment, especially in places like the arctic, where the threat of melting ice caps accelerates the effects of global warming by contributing to rising sea levels. Further, HFO byproducts are highly carcinogenic and can quickly cause cancer, lung and respiratory disease, and more.
Black carbon certainly isn’t strictly a result of the shipping industry, though. Gas and diesel engines, coal power plants, and numerous other sources burn fossil fuels, and they all release the same soot that ships do. Still, the multi-pronged effects of carbon-based fuels are compounding, and the more we can mitigate the damage from every industry, the better. With the shipping industry accounting for 2% - 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions, a step in the right direction would go a long way.
What Alternative and Fuels are Currently Available in the Maritime Sector?
It’s no secret that we’ve found precious and beneficial ways to integrate clean fuels into numerous industrial processes over the past couple of decades, and these fuels and technologies are almost immediately making an impact for the better where they are implemented.
Still, it's taking the maritime industry a considerable amount of time to jump on board, and there is no better time than now to start a strong push toward integration.
So, what clean fuels are available for the maritime industry today?
Liquified Natural Gas (LNG)
LNG is among the list of non-traditional fuels available for the maritime sector, and while it is not a ‘green fuel’ or ‘clean fuel,’ it is a far better alternative that HFOs.
LNG is comprised of around 90% methane, and while methane is undoubtedly a harmful GHG, it is less destructive to the environment than other traditional fossil fuels.
But how is LNG a suitable alternative in the transition to clean fuels?
Switching from HFOs to LNG in the shipping industry would provide numerous environmental benefits. For example, the switch to LNG throughout the industry could provide up to a 99% reduction in SOX emissions, an 80% reduction in NOX emissions, and a 20% reduction in carbon emissions. That transition alone to one of the most abundant fuel sources available today would make a dramatic and positive change and would set an example for other non-maritime industries to make the switch.
The transition to low-emissions and no-emissions fuels in the maritime industry will surely take time, and leaders in the maritime industry are hard at work to find suitable and affordable solutions throughout the transition.
Throughout studies, experts have found that a switch from HFOs to Methanol fuels would significantly lower industry emissions and the general impact the maritime sector has on climate change and the environment. The biggest barrier to entry with this alternative fuel is that methanol production technologies are not yet available at commercial scales, and it will take time before that becomes a reality.
When asked about methanol fuels as a replacement for HFOs in the shipping sector, Joanne Ellis, a researcher with SSPA Sweden, said, “Renewable methanol is a technically viable option to reduce emissions from shipping, and there are no major challenges with potential supply chains.” She goes on to add that there are some economic barriers to entry, but “they do not seem to be insurmountable.”
Hydrogen fuels have been gaining momentum as an alternative fuel in numerous industries over the past decade, but commercialized technology has yet to take hold on a mass scale.
The biggest issue with Hydrogen fuel?
It’s expensive to make, and for now, a large portion of hydrogen that is available is only available on-site in commercial facilities. Well, that should provide some hope to the shipping industry, but we need ship manufacturers to jump on board with that strategy before it becomes viable on a larger scale, which may take time to happen.
Wind and Solar
While we know that both wind and solar are highly beneficial alternatives in numerous industries, they have yet to take a strong grip on the shipping industry. However, wind energy has been integrated to reduce the amount of fuel a ship uses. Still, commercial trade and cargo ships take an extreme amount of energy to power, and renewable wind (and especially solar) can not yet handle the load requirements for complete operations.
Again, this may be an issue that requires ship-building engineers to take on the task, but we will surely see how things play out.
How Dark Ships Fuel an Already Environmentally-Destructive Industry
While the majority of the shipping industry is not operating outside of laws and regulations, there is a growing global dark fleet that has been moving in the shadows, and the impacts of these fleets are detrimental.
Dark ships are notorious for their carelessness and disregard for the environment and, in many cases, human life. Not only do these ships use fuels that are exceedingly harmful to the environment, but they surely do not follow procedures to dispose of the waste and byproducts.
In most cases, we can assume they empty their waste fuels directly into the oceans. Since dark ships operate unnoticed in most cases, we have no way of monitoring or tracking the effects of their actions.
In order to combat dark ships and their impact on the environment, regulatory agencies and maritime authorities must begin to adopt modern and innovative technology to detect dark ships in the act. By doing so, we can deter dark shipping fleets from operating in areas with vulnerable ecosystems and, hopefully, lower the impact on the world’s precious natural resources.
Clean Fuels in the Shipping Industry: Further Out than We’d Like
In the grand scheme of things, we need a big push from ship engineers and shipbuilders to integrate new technologies into combustion systems to provide viable and affordable solutions to the clean fuel transition.
Unfortunately, we are further out than we’d like to be, but with a strong push and a positive outlook, we may soon see bigger strides and heavier impacts for the better.