From Bunker Fuel to Biofuel

By Anna Simet | March 21, 2013

As I read and write about U.S. pellet/wood resource exports from the U.S., I sometimes wonder about the carbon footprint of these ships, or how much fuel is used to transport materials overseas.

Relevant to that thought, I recently became aware of a biofuel initiative of Maersk Line shipping, which is considered the largest container shipping company in the world by revenue, employs about 25,000 people and operates over 600 vessels.

Partnering up with Progression Industry, a spin-off of Eindhoven University of Technology’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Netherlands, the goal of Maersk’s initiative is to develop a renewable, lignin-based marine fuel called CyclOx, for Maersk Oil Trading, the Maersk Line fuel supplier.

(If you’re curious, here is a video that explains CyclOx and how it’s made.) 

If Progression industry can produce a fuel that meets Maersk’s criteria, the company has formally agreed to purchase 50,000 metric tons of it.

From what I’ve gathered, the EU is going to crack down on the sulfur content of shipping fuel in EU waters beginning in 2015, and is also putting pressure on the shipping industry to cut down on emissions. Not only is emissions in mind with this project, but the company says it spends about $7 billion annually on fuel, and is hoping this might be a cheaper substitute.

In the company’s 2012 sustainability report, Maersk CEO Søren Skou says that since April 2012, Maresk has partnered with a total of 6 academic and industrial partners for ship biofuels.  He admits that while turning biomass into scalable and price-competitive shipping fuels is not an easy task, the company is optimistic that research and development will make sustainable biofuels a viable alternative within the next 3 to 7 years.

Whether that will happen during that timeframe is a crapshoot (we all know the “five-years-out” tag that’s often put on advanced biofuels…year after year ), but on a very positive note, things are happening, progress is being made, and we’re actually getting somewhere.

So suffice to say that one day, that cruise ship you’re on may be running on biofuels.