Enabling Future Fuels to Decarbonize Shipping

Enabling Future Fuels to Decarbonize Shipping

Jan 17, 2022
Posted by Simon Tarrant, Global Business Director, Large Engines

The big challenge the marine industry faces is its journey to decarbonization and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. Large combustion engines remain the prime movers of choice in the shipping sector with current other alternatives such as batteries not yet being viable. The size and weight of a battery needed to power a container vessel is greater than the whole payload of said container vessel without any cargo—and even before regulations come into effect, engine builders are implementing their major emissions reduction strategy. Engine platforms with flexible multi-fuel capability and a progressive change from fossil fuels to synthetic fuels will ultimately produce net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This fuel transition will require new technologies; among them, new lubricants and additives to enable these new operating processes and conditions.  

When implemented, the “initial strategy ” of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will require emissions of CO2 from marine engines to reduce to 50% of 2008 levels by the end of 2050. Set against the technical upheaval and costs involved, however, the decarbonization of transport by water is already bringing opportunities as engines change and adapt.

The role of an additive supplier is to design, develop and then produce the additive systems that go into marine lubricants, enabling the safe, efficient and effective operation of very large marine engines, particularly low-speed two-strokes.

Since the fuel used by an engine has a major influence on its lubrication, and the declared decarbonization strategies of engine builders center on new fuels and fuel flexibility, the challenge for a lubricant additive specialist is clear. The key is understanding how global needs are developing and translating insights into products. It is the chemistry of additives and lubricants which will make technology solutions “enablers” for new engine designs. Success means that in addition to additives contributing to the lubrication of moving parts, they will also help to neutralize acids formed during the combustion cycle and provide appropriate engine wear protection. This will promote cleanliness of the piston and rings which, in turn, minimizes deposits that could cause wear and ultimately failures in the engine.

Although the IMO’s initial strategy is not yet in force, current engine builder development activity shows urgency, determination and preparedness to make a rapid impact on maritime CO2 emissions when the time comes. The timeline for additive companies to take a product to market can be three to five years—from gathering initial market insights, translating them into product objectives and onto laboratory research, formulating new chemistry technologies and conducting mechanical tests.  Therefore, additive companies cannot wait until the future alternative fuels are finalized by the engine industry, scaled up and on the market. Especially not when engines are already being adapted to operate on alternative fuels, some of which, like ammonia, methanol and hydrogen, are radically different.  Action needs to be taken now. 

The development of a new additive product relies on close collaboration with all the parties involved. It isn’t immediately obvious that lubricant and additives are an inherent part of the total engine design process.  An additive companies’ direct customers are the suppliers of the marine engine oils that go to the vessels and fleets around the world, but for an additive company to do their job, they must also engage with marine engine designers and manufacturers to ensure that the performance of lubricants and additives aligns with how the engines are evolving. Currently, as engine builders look for greater efficiency, the emphasis is on operating processes and conditions including lower friction and lower emissions. Each stakeholder has their field of expertise—the oil marketers, the additive companies, the engine designers—they must all link up their sets of expertise to reach the same point of success.

The development approach for lubricants which will enable these new alternate fuels involves a four-step understanding process: 

  1. Are there any distinct, new or different inherent characteristics of these alternate fuels? 
  2. What might the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) need to adapt in their engine hardware to accommodate those fuels? That could be the metallurgy of parts in fuel injection and combustion control systems or other major components.
  3. What new or different combustion phenomena might we see with those alternate fuels, in tandem with the lubricant? Today, we see the acidic nature of combustion. In the future, it could still be acidic in nature, but it might be different acids. Or will there be new chemical compositions as part of the combustion cycle?
  4. How will the additive and lubricant chemistry need to be enhanced to deliver the required performances with those new fuels? 

For example, lubricants that are going to be used with gaseous fuels such as Ammonia and LNG are going to need enhanced chemistry. Ammonia is inherently more corrosive than traditional liquid fuels and is not going to be readily compatible with a lot of traditional additive chemistries. When looking to combust a gas fuel, they tend to create higher combustion temperatures than liquid diesel fuel. These higher combustion temperatures require the lubricant to have greater thermal strength to prevent the oil degrading a lot faster and reducing the protection performances it needs to give. Given that it has zero carbon content, two-stroke engine builders are developing ammonia-burning engines on a tight timescale. However, the research and development of new additive chemistry can take multiple years. It is therefore critical that additive companies begin engaging with the OEMs and academic institutions whilst this engine technology is developing. Waiting until the fuels, engines and vessels are at scale up to start is not an option as the lubricant solution will need to be ready at the same time. It is vital that all stakeholders find ways of engaging along the design process so that new additive chemistries can be designed, developed and tested in order to be ready for use when the first alternate fuel engines are being deployed into the market.  

Our View

Overall, it's a time of exciting challenges for additive companies with the prospect of great progress. Focus will be on delivering the solutions needed. This has already started, and additive companies are playing their part bringing new technology to the market that has helped with the IMO 2020 cap on sulfur in marine fuels. Now is the time for additive companies to continue to help to enable shipping’s journey to decarbonization. 

(Content pulled from ship.energy podcast.)

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