Biofuel Ship - Credit Jan de Nul

Biofuels: the engine-compatible clean fuel alternative

Oct. 22 2020 - 5 min

Compatible with modern ship engines and carbon-neutral when produced sustainably, biofuels are the unsung alternative fuel source sitting right under ship owners’ noses.

Biofuels are a sustainable form of energy derived from the harvesting and processing of various types of biomass (e.g., crops, waste, wood). Biofuels release no additional CO2 into the atmosphere when burned, offering a huge advantage to transportation companies looking to reduce emissions and improve their carbon footprint.

The marine industry, however, has been slow to adopt biofuels as a clean energy source. Less than 1% of the global fleet currently runs on biofuels, despite increased production and availability in Europe, North America and Asia.

Why should ships use biofuels?

Biofuels provide a key advantage to ship owners, operators and managers: they are completely compatible with modern ship engines. All vessel types – large or small, deep-sea or short-sea trading, gas-fueled or traditionally liquid fueled – can burn biofuels without requiring technical, safety or design adjustments. Biofuels can also be mixed with fossil fuels (the “drop-in” fuel option), enabling ships to start limiting their emissions without becoming fully dependent on biofuels.

A convenient clean fuel source, biofuels do not depend on specific infrastructure or regional resources, and can be produced in any location. Biomass for making biofuels is available everywhere, and populated areas tend to produce high levels of waste, limiting the amount of transportation required to distribute biofuels. As biofuel production increases, ships will be able to refuel sustainably at any port.

The limits of biofuels

While they are a strong option for improving sustainable shipping and advancing the energy transition, biofuels come under scrutiny for three main reasons:

  1. Sustainability: the biomass used to make biofuels must itself be produced sustainably, as the first step in the biofuel supply chain. However, there is currently no globally accepted standard or certification available to verify the green production of biofuels from end to end.
  2. Availability: marine stakeholders have predicted that at most biofuels could supply fuel for 30% of the global fleet. This makes it a partial solution for meeting sustainability targets for shipping, but not a complete solution.
  3. Ethics: Certain resources that can be used as biomass, such as fields, forests and crops, may be needed to meet other, more basic human needs. Ethically allocating resources is non-negotiable when planning biofuel supply chains and production.

The push for biofuels

With IMO’s sustainability target for 2030 drawing near, marine stakeholders are looking for easily obtainable, developed carbon-neutral fuel solutions. Leading the charge are containerships, where cargo owners are increasingly requesting that ship owners use cleaner fuel. Ships operating near densely populated areas – e.g., cruise ships, ferries, dredgers – can also benefit from biofuels, especially when operating in regions where biofuels are widely available.

It is unclear when the shipping industry will turn to biofuels en masse, and biofuels may never be the best solution for ships traveling non-fixed routes. Still, this much is certain: biofuels will have a key, upcoming role to play in the energy transition for the global fleet.

Photo Credit: Jan de Nul