Are biofuels ready for use in shipping?
What will power the ships of the future? Lots of people within the maritime shipping industry are asking this question, but so far there is no definitive answer. The fuel of choice for tomorrow’s decarbonized shipping industry hinges on several axes. These include availability, infrastructure, cost, and methods for securing green production.
What are biofuels?
Biofuels are a category of gaseous or liquid fuels generated from biomass – materials of biological origin. They can be created from various sources, or feedstocks, using a variety of processes. Biofuels can be divided into three main generations:
- First generation, also known as conventional biofuels, are produced from agricultural crops, vegetable oil or food waste. Fatty-acid methyl ester (FAME) and hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) are the main types used in the shipping industry.
- Second generation, also known as advanced biofuels, are made of non-food biomass feedstocks like lignocellulosic biomass – residual feedstocks from forestry or crops. Their environmental impact is expected to be lower than the first generation.
- Third generation, a future generation produced from algae and microbes, which will need further development before it is fit for wider uptake.
Are we ready for biofuels?
On the surface, biofuels would technically be an easy decarbonization solution for shipping. They are suitable for all vessel types: large, small, deep-sea or short-sea, gas- or liquid-fueled, without major adjustments. Biofuels or blended biofuels would both be lower carbon alternatives to fossil fuels from a well-to-wake perspective. Equally, as they can be produced around the world, and present no significant complications for bunkering, initial infrastructure would not pose a major challenge.
Where biofuels fall under closer scrutiny is in their production pathways, and in possibility of fuel competition from other transportation sectors. There are several challenges here:
- Securing sustainably produced biomass: there is currently no global standard to verify end-to-end green production pathways for biofuels.
- Allocating resources ethically: the land used for the production of biomass, or indeed the biomass itself may be needed to meet other societal needs.
- Ensuring availability: while some predict that biofuels could power 30% of the global fleet, there is concern of strong competition from land transportation and aviation.
Committed to biofuels over the long-term
At IMO level, a regulatory landscape for biofuels is in the process of being developed. Meanwhile, Bureau Veritas (BV) has also paved the way toward a wider uptake of biofuels, releasing its BIOFUEL READY notation earlier this year. Suitable for both new and in-service vessels, it sets out comprehensive requirements to help shipowners prepare to use biofuels or biofuel blends.
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 notation was developed through close industry collaboration and BV’s supply chain expertise.
We assist shipowners in ensuring they carry out the right technical analyses to switch to biofuels with complete awareness of safety considerations from on-board storage and handling to engines. We can also help them understand and assess the sustainability criteria and environmental impacts associated with biofuels. This includes assessing nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which remain at the forefront of current regulatory compliance.
Our VeriFuel division supports the maritime industry in testing various biofuel blends, providing tailored operational advice on drop-in fuels. VeriFuel services cover before bunkering, bunkering and consumption and post-consumption phases, with live tracking and expert support throughout.
 Provided that engine performance, fuel stability, fuel ageing and the impact of NOx emissions are accounted for.
 In terms of storage, HVO is very stable and can be stored for long periods, whereas FAME is susceptible to oxidation and should not be stored for longer than six months.