Biofuels: the transitional marine fuel of today?
Apr. 13 2023
The race is on to transition to low-carbon alternative fuels and biofuels are gaining momentum.
But what are biofuels? They are gaseous or liquid fuels produced from biomass – organic matter of biological and non-fossil origin. Easily adaptable to existing vessels, biofuels are a promising turnkey transitional fuel. Let’s dive deeper to examine this promise.
Are low-carbon biofuels currently available?
Biofuels can be broadly categorized into three generations, some of which are ready for use in shipping, and others still maturing:
- First generation, or conventional biofuels, are generated using agricultural crops, vegetable oil or food waste. These are the most commonly used biofuels worldwide.
- Second generation, or advanced biofuels, are produced from- non-food biomass feedstocks like residual feedstocks from forestry or crops. They could have fewer negative environmental impacts relating to land use and food production.
- Third generation biofuels are a future generation of biofuels currently needing further development, produced from algae and microbes.
Currently, first-generation biofuels are the most widely available. However, their scalability is constrained by the origin of their feedstock, which is food-purposed crops and thus entails direct and indirect land-use changes.
Second-generation biofuels, produced from non-food feedstocks such as forest biomass and agricultural crops, are free of some constraints associated with first-generation biofuels. Their role in decarbonizing shipping will likely be crucial. However, it will require a sharp uptake in supply, which inherently requires significant investments.
What does lignocellulosic mean?
Dry plant matter is also known as lignocellulosic biomass. It is the most abundantly available raw material for producing biofuels. Cellulose- and lignin-rich biomass are commonly known as lignocellulosic. Lignocellulosic feedstocks include forestry biomass and agricultural crop residues and is a feedstock used in second-generation biofuels.
Do biofuel production pathways matter?
Yes, they absolutely do! The way a biofuel is produced and the feedstock used are key when analyzing a biofuel’s lifecycle GHG emissions. They therefore have an impact on determining whether they can be considered as low-carbon fuel. There is currently no globally accepted standard or certification in place to ensure the end-to-end sustainable production of biofuels. First generation biofuels, for example, are carbon neutral on paper. But, this claim becomes far more complex from a well-to-wake perspective and when considering more holistic sustainability criteria.
What other kind of ramifications might biofuel production entail? For one, the land needed for production is already in high demand to expand croplands around the world. This puts first-generation biofuel production and food markets in competition with each other – not an easy battle to win. From an ethical standpoint, most would prioritize meeting global food demand over fueling ships.
What shipping companies need to know
When it comes to biofuel use there are two broad categories of considerations for shipping companies: the practical and the technical.
On the practical side…
Thus far, as with many fuels, it is difficult to predict the exact future prices of biofuels. Blending biofuels with fossil fuels can reduce the overall energy content which means more fuel is needed to maintain performance. Besides, maintenance may have to be adapted in cooperation with OEMs depending on which biofuels and blends are used. The latter can lead to additional OPEX costs that shipping companies will need to shoulder.
Another crucial factor is availability. At current production rates biofuels are unlikely to be able to meet a large proportion of global maritime demand. Competition with other sectors, such as land-based transportation, may compound concerns surrounding availability. This factor is not, however, specific to biofuels – availability remains a challenge for several other potential marine fuels.
The practical disadvantage of biofuels is a question of supply – particularly for the more ecological second- and third-generations. Theoretically, these later second generation biofuels could become a flexible and sustainable refueling option. Their required feedstocks are available worldwide, and port infrastructure should not require significant adaptations to accommodate them. Practically, however, they need to be produced at much greater scale.
And the technical side
One of the major advantages of biofuels is the maturity of compatible engines. Vessels typically require no modification to use biofuels, making them a “drop in” replacement for conventional marine fuels. This sets biofuels apart from the majority of alternative fuels – including hydrogen, ammonia and LNG – which require specific engines or fuel storage and supply systems.
Characteristically speaking, biofuels are similar to standard fuel oil. This means minimal investment would be needed to meet evolving regulations and ensure crew safety onboard.
VeriFuel: accompanying marine biofuel advancement
VeriFuel is the comprehensive Marine Fuel Services program by Bureau Veritas (BV). With our global network of experts and laboratories, VeriFuel offers marine fuel quality and quantity assessments, advisory reports and expert advice on current and future marine fuels. Using the latest technology, our clients can monitor their marine fuel activities 24/7.
What regulations are in place for biofuels?
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is now developing guidelines for the life cycle GHG analysis of marine fuels, which is expected to be the cornerstone when considering the emissions reduction potential of marine biofuels.
Specific biofuel regulations may still be in the early stages, but ship operators are adapting their fleets now to comply with IMO emissions regulations. Biofuels may be part of the solution to reducing emissions and meeting compliance requirements. With a sustainable production pathway, biofuels promise significant carbon emissions reductions compared to standard fossil fuels.
Biofuels also appear to be in line with NOx emission limits. The challenge, however, comes in proving compliance. This may require onboard emission testing or engine and fuel-specific NOx emissions validation testing. However, the IMO regulations now consider blends of 30% biofuel or less in the same way as traditional oil-based bunkers.
To help the industry prepare for the use of biofuels or biofuel blends, BV created its BIOFUEL READY notation. It provides a set of requirements and comprehensive guidelines for the necessary documentation and testing. Suitable for new and existing ships, BIOFUEL READY is one example of how we leverage our transversal expertise to support the maritime industry’s decarbonization journey and safely progress innovative solutions. This includes assessing nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which remain at the forefront of current regulatory compliance.
Bureau Veritas M&O
Biofuels are a viable transitional solution for the maritime industry, easily adaptable to existing ships. Nevertheless, there are operational considerations that mustn’t be neglected. Our BIOFUEL READY notation guides owners a clear requirements. This includes technical analysis to identify and assess any potential consequences of biofuel use, and assessment of the impact of changes to engine settings and onboard equipment.
Biofuels can broadly be considered ready for use onboard ships today – from a technical standpoint at least. The regulatory context still needs to be refined, and there are market factors that remain unpredictable. Nevertheless, biofuels show great promise as a transitional fuel to help decarbonize the maritime industry.