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Digital Feature: Can ships run on biofuel?

This article was originally posted on ExxonMobil's website: https://corporate.exxonmobil.com/locations/eu-regional-news/can-ships-run-on-biofuel

Key takeaways:

  • The shipping industry produces around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and our biofuels are helping reduce emissions in what is a hard-to-decarbonize sector.
  • Biofuels – lower-emission fuels from renewable sources such as plant and waste biomass – are important to reducing emissions in the industry.
  • In 2022 and 2023 we delivered very low sulphur fuel oil to ships in the Port of Singapore.

Lowering emissions from shipping, a sector that accounts for around 3% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carries 90% of all goods that are transported around the world, is an important part of reducing global emissions. It is the ambition of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to cut CO2 emissions per transport work (i.e., the transportation of people, animals or goods) from international shipping by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 2008.

The development of biofuels – a type of lower-emission fuel made from renewable sources such as a plant and waste biomass – is central to this. Options include marine biofuels that use sustainable waste-based feedstock with the potential to reduce GHG emissions by as much as 87%1.

“One of the benefits of marine biofuels it that they can reduce emissions up to 30% versus traditional marine fuels,”2 explains Tanya Bryja, VP of EAME Fuels at ExxonMobil. “As our marine customers increase their aspirations for reducing their emissions, biofuels are going to play a huge role,” she adds. 

In 2020, we concluded a successful sea trial of our first marine biofuel, with a 0.50% very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO). Since this collaboration with tanker shipping company Stena Bulk, bunkered in the Port of Rotterdam, we have supplied marine biofuels to various customers.

In 2022, we completed two biofuel deliveries to a vessel operated by the Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas company (PNG LNG) in the Port of Singapore. A further bunker delivery was made to an Evergreen Line vessel in the port in 2023. Both collaborations involved VLSFO with a biofuel component of up to 25% – derived from waste-based fatty acid methyl esters. 

An industry in transition. In May 2023, we signed an agreement with Hapag-Lloyd to supply the shipping company with a VLSFO in the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) region. The product is a B30, a blend of 30% biofuel and 70% VLSFO. We also delivered bio ultra-low sulphur fuel oil (Bio-ULSFO) to the shipping company. This is a B25, a blend of 25% biofuel and 75% ULSFO. The Port of Singapore and the ARA region are the two biggest bunkering hubs in the world, together accounting for around 50% of ship refueling worldwide. That makes them ideal locations for such deliveries – serving customers where demand is the greatest. 

“Our plan is to grow this further,” Aly explains, adding that ExxonMobil is “currently talking to multiple customers about biofuels.” One such customer is Wallenius Wilhelmsen, who we have supplied with B30 VLSFO since late 2023. Further biofuel deliveries are taking place in the UK, where we provide marine gas oil and high sulphur fuel oil from its Fawley refinery to several ports along the south coast. This includes a successful test delivery to a Foreland Shipping vessel under charter with the UK Ministry of Defence, and a delivery to a cruise line operator.

Our work with biofuels is part of our commitment to reduce emissions from our own operations, and support others in reducing theirs. Our Low Carbon Solutions (LCS) business focuses on this work, initially prioritizing the technologies of carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and biofuels. These solutions have significant potential to help lower emissions across sectors that have traditionally been hard to decarbonize, including shipping, while continuing to meet society’s energy needs. 

“The shipping industry will decarbonize in two phases,” Aly says. “The first is a transition phase, which we’re in now. During that period, biofuels and liquid natural gas are crucial to the industry’s ability to meet its lower emission targets.” The second phase is, he adds, likely to see a focus on methanol, ammonia, and hydrogen as lower-emission alternatives to conventional marine fuels. These are also areas where we are actively exploring technologies and efficient pathways to meet our customers’ low emission fuels needs.

The biofuels are drop-in fuels, which means they can be used without the need for engine modification. Nevertheless, customers still have queries. Armelle Breneol, technical advisor for marine fuels at ExxonMobil, points out that “marine biofuels are just entering the game, so there are quite a lot of questions about how to handle them”. Providing technical expertise is therefore central to our offering in this field.

Fuels and lubricants: working together to reduce emissions. We have substantial experience of making lubricants that improve fuel efficiency and are exploring how these could be used to reduce emissions from the marine sector. 

We have carried out preliminary studies where we have developed formulations that deliver fuel efficiencies of 0.5-1%,“ explains Willie Givens, technology solutions principal at ExxonMobil. “And when you’re talking about the amount of marine fuel that is consumed in a year, even half a percent is significant.”

Fuels that present a commercially viable lower emission alternative could play an important role in helping reduce emissions from the shipping sector and combining them with the right lubricants could boost that potential. 

Fuels that present a commercially viable lower emission alternative could play an important role in helping reduce emissions from the shipping sector and combining them with the right lubricants could boost that potential. 


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