a dead coral reef in the Indian Ocean

6 Shipping Technology Developments That Can Clean up the Industry

by kirkcoburn
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In an earlier post, I discussed how shipping is drastically increasing ocean pollution. But it’s not all bad news. As companies and investors focus more on renewable energy and cleaner initiatives, shipping technology developments are getting better. Read on to find why shipping is referred to as the dirtiest sector, the regulations and technologies in place, and the shipping technology developments that will help remedy the situation.

Maritime Sector and Air Pollution

There are approximately 90,000 commercial vessels that transport goods between countries via sea. This is why the shipping industry is one of the sectors that accounts for a significant proportion of global oil consumption.

Because of this consumption, shipping plays a major role in air pollution. Prior to 2020, the bunker oil used had high levels of sulfur. When released into the atmosphere, sulfur prevents heat from escaping. Also, sulfur can cause complications whenever something inhales it.

What is bunker oil (or fuel oil):

The term fuel oil is also used in a stricter sense to refer only to the heaviest commercial fuel that can be obtained from crude oil, i.e., heavier than gasoline and naphtha. Small molecules like those in propane, naphtha, gasoline for cars, and jet fuel (kerosene) have relatively low boiling points, and they are removed at the start of the fractional distillation process. Heavier petroleum products like diesel fuel and lubricating oil are much less volatile and distill out more slowly, while bunker oil is literally the bottom of the barrel; in oil distilling, the only things denser than bunker fuel are carbon black feedstock and bituminous residue (asphalt), which is used for paving roads and sealing roofs.


In other words, the rest of the world uses the more expensive products coming out of the world’s refineries leaving the cheap stuff for moving all of the Amazon products around the world for you and me to enjoy. This is the economic trade-off the world has made (so far): cheaper goods > cleaner oceans. And as I have written before, the social responsibility of business is…to stay open (during Covid 19) as well as increase long-term profits. While I want cleaner oceans since it just makes sense and I spend hours in it every week on a surfboard, without all parties participating (business, governments, and society (you & me), nothing is going to happen. Amazingly, IMO 2020 is a regulation that hit this year (and was a long-time coming).

IMO 2020

With the increasing awareness about the threat of climate change, efforts to address pollution have accelerated in recent years. In 2015, under the Paris Agreement, all nations of the world agreed to commit to national and international efforts to ensure the global temperature rise this century is below 2 degrees Celsius.

However, the shipping industry was not accounted for in the Paris Agreement. This is because it is challenging to assign the responsibility of pollution in international waters to any country. Nonetheless, we still need to reduce emissions from the sector. This is why the International Maritime Organization formulated the IMO 2020.

The IMO 2020, which took effect on 1st January 2020, aims to curb sulfur emissions by over 80%. Previously, bunker oil consisted of 3.5% net sulfur. However, under the IMO 2020, sulfur content in marine oil should not exceed 0.5%.

Shipping Technology Developments Fixing the Dirtiness in the Shipping Sector

The need to comply with the IMO 2020, along with expectations of other similar measures, has aroused the need for players in the sector to find new shipping technology developments to support the initiative. As a bare requirement, bunker oil suppliers have had to adjust their storage and barges to ensure that they are suitable to handle Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) and other acceptable fuels like diesel.

Shipping companies need to invest in new ships geared for low sulfur oil. However, replacing entire fleets at a single go is not economically feasible and can only be done over time. Otherwise, your Amazon purchases will start to resemble a typical Danish energy bill. 80% of your bill will be shipping and taxes. In the meantime, companies are fitting existing ships with the equipment to gear them for low sulfur oil. Despite the apparent desire by shipping companies to support the initiative to make the sector cleaner, costs have proven to be a major hurdle. Other than the cost of infrastructure, low sulfur oil — at $600 per barrel — is almost twice as expensive as the oil in use previously (at $ 350 per barrel).

With oil costs already accounting for the biggest chunk of shipping costs, such prices will undoubtedly affect shipping prices. Though carriers may initially take on the added expenses, the extra cost will ultimately go to the end consumer.

With the objective of complying with IMO 2020, making the industry cleaner, and reducing shipping costs, different companies are trying out new shipping technology developments that can power ships or supplement oil. They include:

1. Scrubbers

dark exhaust from a large ship
Scrubbers can minimize air pollution — they’re not a complete solution, but we need a system of partial solutions in the meantime.

One way shipping companies can ensure that their fleet does not emit harmful pollutants in contravention of IMO 2020 is by installing scrubbers. With scrubbers, ships do not have to use low sulfur fuel.

After the engine burns oil, a gas that contains sulfur is released as exhaust. This gas then goes through a chimney. That chimney channels the gas away from the crew and equipment and releases it into the atmosphere. Scrubbers, also known as exhaust gas cleaning systems, ensure that the released gas does not contain high amounts of pollutants.

Scrubbers do this by spraying an alkaline solution or water on the exhaust gas before it exits the chimney. Doing so ensures the acidic pollutants and solid sludge are removed from the exhaust gas. The solid sludge that remains can then be disposed of accordingly once the ship docks.

However, scrubbers come at a cost. With ‘open loop’ scrubbers, which are used in approximately 80% of the ships, seawater treats the exhaust. Then it is channeled back into the ocean with wash water. Though this reduces the amount of pollutants released in the air, it is a form of water pollution.

The discharge contains heavy metals, nitrates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and sulfates. Releasing sulfates into the water results in sulfuric acid formation, which can degrade the surrounding environment. Also, there is an association between cancers in arctic animals and the release of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Though scrubbers allow a ship to continue burning cheap heavy fuel, they are only a temporary solution.

2. Batteries

It may take some time before the maritime sector is fully compliant with IMO 2020. This is because no solution at present is fully effective, and there is a myriad of challenges with implementing them. However, the use of batteries to power ships is emerging as a suitable option, especially in the long run. In full disclosure, I am on the board of the leading supplier of batteries to the maritime space: Corvus Energy.

Due to the distance covered by ships and their energy requirements, batteries can only be used as a supplement to oil. This is why experts project that the global marine battery market will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 48.1% between 2020 and 2025. This will see the market size reach $812 million, up from $250 million.        

Fully electric ships are in the market. But they can only cover a limited range and are ineffective for ferrying goods. However, as the distance capabilities on ship batteries increases, the sector’s reliance on oil will reduce.

3. Alternative Fuels

The need to reduce emissions has sparked a rush to identify fuels that can become a suitable alternative to oil. According to DNV GL, suitable options include LPG, LNG, biofuel, hydrogen, and methanol.

4. Liquefied Petroleum Gas

Liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, is a clean and energy-efficient fuel mix of butane and propane. Since it is available worldwide, easy to transport, and relatively affordable, it is emerging as a suitable alternative for oil.

At present, LPG only comes from oil production operations and natural gas. However, with improving technologies and techniques, it can also be sourced from renewables, making it ideal in the long run. To demonstrate this, LPG carriers now prefer to use it as their fuel.

The World LPG Association (WLPGA) suggests that LPG has a major role in helping the shipping sector achieve the goal of reducing greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2050. 

5. Hydrogen

Companies are still testing the use of hydrogen to power ships. But it presents significant hope for clean fuel. While it can be produced using renewable energy, hydrogen is the cleanest fuel and has immense potential within the maritime sector.

According to Tomas Tronstad, Hyon managing director, hydrogen-powered fuel cells will be a key feature within five years. And I agree with him.

6. Sails

In the past, ships relied on sails for propulsion. Though it may sound ridiculous, wind propulsion is likely to play a huge role in shipping in the future. Technology is facilitating the creation of larger and more powerful sails that can harness more wind power. I have been pitched myriad times by companies with the best sail technology…while super cool, I just cannot get my head around it. Prove me wrong?

Also, with advanced weather forecasts and computerized routing systems, technology can direct ships to the wind-driven routes to capitalize on strong winds. Though testing for modern sails is still ongoing, multiple companies have reported promising results indicating that fuel savings of up to 8% are possible.

The Role of Investment and Shipping Technology Developments in Cleaning Up the Maritime Sector

There is a great need for new and innovative fuels and shipping technology developments to supplement or replace oil usage for the IMO goals to be achieved. More importantly, they will ensure that oceans remain clean and safe places for people to enjoy open water activities such as surfing at the Gulf of Mexico. However, we cannot achieve this without the necessary investments in research and development.

Do you have an innovative idea that can help tackle maritime sulfur emissions? You are in the right place. If you have a new sail idea, I still want to hear from you. You may change my mind.

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