Bunker Mentality

Feat_BunkermentalityEveryone’s looking to make the ‘right’ choice about fuel. But there is no silver bullet. The fuel of the future probably hasn’t shown up yet, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of scope for change.

Last month shipping went—temporarily—viral. The reason it did so was thanks to an article on the UK’s Guardian website that was written back in 2008. The article was entitled, “Health risks of shipping pollution have been ‘underestimated’,” and if I tell you that it contained the sentence, “One giant container ship can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50m cars,” then you’ll probably get the gist of it.

Unfortunately, whilst those in the shipping industry know about the progress in environmental regulations which has been made since that article was written six years ago, and the reality of our CO2 emissions per tonne mile in comparison to rail or freight, the same cannot be said for most of the 3,000 members of Joe Public who chose to comment on the article. And you will be unsurprised to hear that they were broadly uncomplimentary.

There were a range of suggestions—perhaps exhortations would be more precise—regarding the methods of propulsion that should be considered as alternatives to HFO in the future. The most interesting part was that virtually all of them have, and are, being considered in minute detail by an industry trying to come to terms with a looming sulphur cap. With the exception of attaching reins to pods of dolphins. Or using the Force. As far as I know.

All the reports come to broadly the same conclusion. That by 2030 and beyond, the dominant fuel in the maritime industry will be bunkers. And that’s hardly surprising.

Yet despite the research going into everything from methanol, glycerine and hydrogen, to batteries, solar, wind, and midi-chlorians—okay, not the midi-chlorians—the environmental lobby still accuses shipping of wanting to continue burning heavy fuel oil. And actually they’ve got a point, because a lot of people do. But that’s hardly surprising when you consider the advice and forecasts we’re being given.

Anyone who works in shipping will tell you that—after rates—fuel is one of their top operational priorities, and not simply in terms of what they’re putting in their tanks on a daily basis. The tightening emissions regulations is part of a trend you don’t need to be a futurist to recognise, and for operators investing in ships that could easily have a 25-30 year life, decisions about what they should—or could—be able to run on are crucial.

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Shell has indicated that disposing of the residue currently used as a marine fuel would take an investment of $100 billion. According to some commentators we may not have the facilities to convert it until 2075.

Getting those decisions right is becoming ever more complex, but assistance comes in the shape of Class, academics and consultants. The Lloyd’s ‘Global Marine Fuel Trends 2030’ report uses a powerful model to create a range of scenarios for the expected fuel mix in the future. DNV GL’s ‘Alternative Fuels for Shipping’ and ‘The Fuel Trilemma’ reports and the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Forecasting the Future of Marine Fuel’ all offer in-depth assessments and are well worth reading.

But they all come to broadly the same conclusion, which is that despite all the expected pressures exerted by environmental legislation, by 2030 and well beyond, the dominant fuel in the maritime industry is still likely to be bunkers.
That’s all the more significant when you reflect that a lot of the analysis is at least in part reliant on an oil price which hadn’t yet commenced its precipitous nosedive. At the time of writing there is speculation that IFO380 bunker prices could get close to $200 per metric tonne (pmt) before there is any significant upswing. Bill Baruch, chief market strategist at Chicago-based consulting and advisory services firm iiTrader recently told CNBC, “This market is headed to $40 before we go to $60 again.” Goldman Sachs have already predicted crude oil to fall as low as $30 per barrel, or $226 pmt which would push that IFO380 price to $158 pmt.

It’s not quite the $40 pmt you could have got it for in Houston in the late 1990s I’m told, but it’s not really that far off either. And the impact of that on the maritime fuel mix could be significant.

In its reports DNV GL makes the point that choice of fuel comes down to three things: affordability, sustainability and safety. And it’s clear that those are in listed in order of importance. If the price of bunkers continues to slide then the uptake horizon for other fuels and propulsion systems will be impacted.

So if all the forecasts are telling us that bunkers are still going to dominate, is it any wonder that interest in other options remains muted?

You could argue it’s a chicken and egg situation, and what’s required is a critical mass of operators to move towards another fuel that will then tip everyone else towards it too. But the reason bunkers look like hanging on to the top spot isn’t anything to do with shipping at all. The fact is that whatever the maritime industry does, as by-products of the refining process bunkers aren’t going anywhere.

“Some in the industry see the current and planned environmental regulations are being unreasonable, or not very well thought out,” says Martyn Lasek, Editor of Ship & Bunker and authority on the bunker industry. “Yes operators want to improve emissions, but they don’t necessarily want to get rid of oil-based products. They are happy to burn HFO, which irrespective of it being used by the marine industry is a product that’s going to be produced anyway as it’s a by-product of the refining process, and vessels are designed to use it.”

It’s an important point. If the oil industry is going to continue producing petroleum and its short-chain, high-value cousins like kerosene and jet fuel, and the world would like to continue its use of plastics, then how can we ban the use of bunkers?

Even reducing the sulfur levels is beginning to get seriously problematic. As a residual, and therefore unrefined product, the lower sulfur requirement is narrowing the pool of useable crudes. If the sulfur cap stops us burning it what do the refiners do with it?

Speaking at the CMA conference oil industry veteran Dr Rudy Kassinger made the point that once the target sulfur level, “hits about 1.5 percent, even residues from low sulfur crudes need to be reduced in sulfur content, and refiners would then probably desulfurise gas oil and blend to the 0.5 per cent spec.” But once the level gets below 0.5 per cent things change altogether. Then the only real option is residue conversion. Shell have indicated that disposing of the residue currently used as marine fuel would take an investment of $100 billion.

“I thought that was in fact a lowball estimate,” said Kassinger. “But it’s a number that you can rationalise because ExxonMobil just published their information about the Antwerp 50,000 barrel per day coker at a cost of $1 billion. You’ll only need about 100 of those to get rid of the residue currently used as marine fuel. That’s $100 billion.”

It’s a pretty fundamental issue, and part of the pressure that’s led IMO to call a review of the proposed sulfur cap in 2018. It is entirely possible that the oil industry won’t be able to meet the demand for bunkers at the sulfur cap specification by 2020. According to Rudy Kassinger it could be 2075 before the infrastructure is fully in place to convert all the bunkers we need. But even if we accept that bunkers are going to dominate for the next twenty or thirty years—or longer—its continued use doesn’t, and can’t mean the continued current level of emissions. But mitigating them is a complex business and highly dependent upon both the sector, vessel and nature of operations.

It’s extremely important to make the distinction between what can and could power smaller coastal, short-sea and RORO vessels, and what the deep sea fleet can reasonably use. As technologies proliferate it’s a growing divide and one which is driving a real diversification in the marine fuel mix.

There is bold work going on to develop renewable-powered ships like the Vindskip, but all require a hybrid approach including LNG or diesel for deep-sea operation

Vessels that don’t stray too far from land can take advantage of technologies which deliver major environmental benefits without compromising security of operation. Deep sea vessels face a greater challenge in order to do so. In many respects it’s a similar situation to connectivity. Close to land it’s possible to use a wide variety of connectivity options, but deep sea those options are rather more limited, and expensive.

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DNV GL’s battery-powered concept the Re-Volt

There is bold work going on to develop renewable powered ships and systems which utilise solar and wind. The Vindskip from Lade AS made headlines a couple of years ago with its futuristic, sail shaped hull, whilst B9 shipping and EcoMarine Power are sporting designs which make use of sails and, in the case of EcoMarine, a solar-panel covered retractable sail. But B9 will also need a biogas powered engine—courtesy of Rolls-Royce, whilst the Vindskip makes use of an LNG engine. In short, these are all hybrid vessels, and hybrid is where a lot of the smart money seems to be going.

It may be a surprise to some readers that we are almost 1200 words in, and I’ve only just mentioned LNG. It’s certainly the case that LNG has a reputation for being the future maritime fuel. And it has a jolly good press, particularly compared to other fuels. In fact if you read the maritime media you would be forgiven for assuming that LNG powered vessels were everywhere. But the reality is quite different. There are indeed LNG vessels around, but they are almost exclusively short sea, coastal and offshore. Virtually the only ones operating deep sea are those which are carrying the stuff in the first place, which makes its own sense.

I think this is where we come down to the nitty gritty of the whole future fuels thing, and why LNG probably isn’t it. If the chicken and egg situation applies anywhere then it would appear to apply to the adoption of LNG. The infrastructure for bunkering isn’t there, so I won’t order the ship, but if I don’t order the ship the infrastructure is unlikely to be built. But step back and analyse that. 70 per cent of all fuel is bought in ten ports around the world, so in reality it wouldn’t be that hard to put the infrastructure in the right places.

But for operators there are other concerns about LNG. Yes, it will get you through the ECAs, but it’s a technology which requires a completely different method of operation, new standards and different training and competencies of crew. It will also cost you around 30 per cent more for the ship.

These are real considerations, but of course you have to set them in the context of what you’ll save on your fuel bill. But even then the picture is mixed. According to the Society for Gas as a Marine Fuel (SGMF) and it’s briefing document, ‘Gas as a marine fuel: an introductory guide’, depending where you buy your LNG it could cost virtually as much as HFO. In Rotterdam in 2014 you would pay 14-15 US$/mmBTU as opposed to 7-8 for LNG, but go to Tokyo and the HFO will cost you between 16-17, whereas LNG could cost as much as 15-16. And of course those figures are from early 2014, well before the price of oil crashed.

“We should be clear. The oil companies or government agencies will never embrace any technology which is capable of reducing their profitability or tax base. Always follow the money if you want to know why something apparently strange happens in business. Between them, these powerful groups have many tools to limit the widespread use of fuel saving technologies. Even large corporations can easily be prevented from introducing any new technology which the oil company cartel does not approve. Protectionism is alive and well in the oil industry.” Richard Hicks, Technical Director, H2Oil.

But perhaps what’s more important is that LNG is still a hydrocarbon, so when you look at the sustainability index it’s not really a great leap forward. Natural gas is promoted due to its CO2 emission intensity being lower than that of coal or oil, but methane, the prime constituent of natural gas, is 25 times more potent as a GHG than CO2.

‘Methane Slip’ is the elevated methane concentrations in exhaust which results from the use of engines operating using the Otto cycle—which apparently includes almost all marine LNG engines. Published data related to this is scarce but according to DNV GL fuel losses of 2-3 per cent is typical. A 3 per cent slip is equivalent to a 24 per cent increase in GHG emissions.

“Methane leakage during production, transportation, and use of natural gas may, in principle, offset the benefits gained from fuel switching,” says DNV GL. “Our calculations show that a total methane leakage of 5.5 % (including both production/transportation, and combustion) would bring GHG emissions from LNG to a level equivalent to those from diesel fuel.”

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The Vindskip from Lade A/S

So the bottom line is that it won’t take very much at all to make LNG as polluting as diesel fuel—at least in terms of GHG. Of course there are ways to mitigate that, but what may be harder to deal with is dear old Joe Public. LNG is not universally considered to be the future fuel that many in maritime like to paint it. Opposition to fracking, LNG pipelines and LNG bunkering is widespread, with demonstrations in the UK and Europe, Canada—where one local mayor was elected on an anti-LNG platform— to Gibraltar which is mired in an ugly political row over the expansion of its LNG storage, bunkering and regasification facilities with the opposition quoting a Lloyd’s Register report which apparently concluded LNG operations in the North Mole and Detached Mole could pose “potentially intolerable risks”.

So it’s no surprise that LNG has a very good PR machine, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the future of marine fuel it isn’t. And even DNV GL—often seen as a cheerleader for LNG—seem to have come to that conclusion. “It is obvious that fossil-based LNG cannot be classified as a sustainable fuel, but it has the advantage of reducing SOx, NOx, and particulate matter emissions, while offering some reductions in GHG when used properly,” it says in its position paper on fuels. “It could act as a bridging fuel towards a future in which air pollution from shipping is significantly reduced.”

I’m sure it will, but even on the most ambitious projections LNG still makes up only around 20 per cent of the marine fuel mix by the 2030’s. That means the bridge needs to include a lot more mitigation and abatement, and efficiency. Fortunately—or not depending upon your point of view—the bunker industry and the fuel efficiency of ships in general offers incredible scope to do so.

In researching this issue of the magazine I’ve heard some frankly jaw-dropping stories about the inner workings of the bunker industry. But here’s what I’m going with—the bunker industry is slowly seeing an acceleration and acceptance of technology and transparency, but it remains very opaque and volatile. And that may be the greatest understatement I’ve made this year.

For many reading this none of that will come as a surprise, but for anyone who isn’t close to the bunkering industry some of the practices are scarcely believable. I was astonished to learn that there are crew delivering bunkers to ships who aren’t paid a salary, but instead make their money on arbitrage. It was almost as surprising as being told that even if you buy 1,000 tonnes of fuel within the ISO8217 specification it can legitimately contain 5 tonnes of water. That means a supplier can quite lawfully charge you hundreds of dollars a tonne for water. And whilst the water content in fuel from European refineries is typically less than 0.05 per cent—effectively a trace—the industry average water content of marine fuel according to DNVPS testing is 0.26 per cent.

Overall the quality of marine fuel has been falling. FOBAS have indicated that between 3-5 per cent of all the samples they test weekly are out of spec and other testers report higher percentages. By some estimates $1.3 billion of fuel purchased in Singapore alone is off-spec. And, of course, up until very recently, it was very difficult indeed to know exactly how much you were actually getting pumped into the tank anyway.

“Back in 1999 when buyers were paying as low as $40 per tonne, bunker costs were of a lower concern because they represented a much lower percentage of the overall operating costs. As the price of bunkers has gone up, and their percentage of overall operating costs is now around 60% of overall voyage costs, the cost consequences of bunker related malpractices – such as not receiving the volume of bunkers paid for, or any deliberate lowering of the quality of bunkers – is much higher,” explains Martyn Lasek. “One of the unintended consequences of new environmental legislation could be to improve overall bunker quality and even curb some of the quality related malpractice.”

Lasek points out that the sulfur cap could see more distillate fuels used in the future, which have historically had fewer quality problems. At the same time it’s predicted that those still using HFO will move to using an even higher viscosity product such as 500cSt as opposed to the 380cSt more common today, “and it’s harder to mess with those higher viscosity, lower priced bunkers.”

It seems that the combination of price rises and forthcoming environmental regulation has already begun to shift things. But on a broader level whereas flow meters are a start, there doesn’t appear at the moment to be much evidence of the industry leveraging pretty mainstream technologies like sensors, data and the industrial internet.

Opaque and volatile may in the past have been shorthand for ‘too difficult to tackle’, but now it’s the equivalent of hanging out a big sign saying, ‘ripe for disruption’. Particularly when you consider that things are only going to get more complicated.

Some operators are paying five times more in bunker costs than their competitors even though they’re using vessels of a similar design.

With the range of fuels broadening and the regulations tightening the days of a vessel running on just one fuel are pretty much behind us. For operators the practicality of using fuels which have different characteristics and aren’t always compatible is a growing area of concern.

Fuel switching issues in the past have led to loss of power—distillates are used at ambient temperatures as opposed to bunkers which require heating and those different temperatures can in some cases risk thermal shock. Then you can add LNG into the mix at the other end of the scale—that’s cryogenic. New risks are emerging around fuelling a vessel, even as simple as making sure that two separate tanks of two separate fuels don’t co-mingle in the lines.
But streamlining the bunkers industry is only one part of the puzzle. According to the New Climate Economy report some operators are paying five times more in bunker costs than their competitors even though they’re using vessels of a similar design.

“Ship efficiency varies widely based on design, fuel and power sources, and operations,” says the report. “Even ships with similar designs can operate with vastly different efficiencies. The most efficient crude oil tanker is about one-fifth as fuel-intensive as the least efficient.”

Operational efficiency is a lot about speed and utilisation rate—the report contends that a 10 per cent reduction in speed equates to a reduction in fuel use of 27 per cent per hour—but that really is the low hanging fruit. In fact the scope for improved operational efficiency is massive for ship operators. The report says that reliable data on operational efficiency is scarce and presents a ‘significant challenge’ for the industry, but it really doesn’t have to.
Outgoing DNV GL CEO Henrik O Madsen recently described ship operators as ‘too conservative’ and the society unveiled research last month which showed that most ship operators simply aren’t ambitious enough with either their targets or their efforts to become more efficient.

The burgeoning opportunities offered by sensors, data and optimisation algorithms and software could cut deeply into the amount of fuel shipping uses, and thereby its overall emissions. The New Climate Economy report has even gone as far as to put a figure on it. They claim improving vessel efficiency could save $200 billion in bunker costs by 2035.

You might think it was great in the good old days when you could burn whatever the heck you liked in your ship and got charged peanuts for it. But we can’t go back. And the complexity of fuelling vessels appropriately and profitably, and efficiently has become an area of real competitive advantage. Buying bunkers at the lowest price just isn’t enough any longer. Quite aside from the fact that buying old spec or out of spec fuel may mean cat fines screw up your expensive engines, there are wider considerations now.

Already the likes of Rightship are changing the way that Charterers evaluate vessels. From a CSR perspective fuel is likely to become an area where ship operators can add value, or disadvantage themselves in the market, and that kind of transparency of operations is part of a growing trend.

The order of LNG powered cruise ships from Meyer Werft by Carnival is a big step forward, but there is already public concern about fracking and the safety of LNG, particularly in Gibraltar where the new ships will call and re-fuel.

The order of LNG powered cruise ships from Meyer Werft by Carnival is a big step forward, but there is already public concern about fracking and the safety of LNG, particularly in Gibraltar where the new ships will call and re-fuel.

The UK will shortly be bringing in a reporting requirement for British companies to disclose details of their supply chains to expose any connection with slavery or people trafficking. It’s the first time that a company will have been made responsible for the actions of its supply chain, and as a key part of so many supply chains it’s an example of a trend which will impact shipping significantly in the coming years.

Improving the transparency and efficiency of the bunkering industry and the efficiency of ship operators is undoubtedly overdue and necessary. Together with LNG and hybrid operations it will form the bridge to the cleaner operations that DNV GL talk about.

But there are other potential technologies which could hold opportunities for maritime to mitigate its emissions. And although they’ve been around some time, they just don’t seem to have gained traction.

Fuel emulsification additives and catalysts aren’t new, and reading the significant number of case studies available at least some of them do seem to work. And when they do work they are offering on average between 8-16% in fuel savings, together with reduced NOx and SOx, plus reductions in engine wear. For any operators those figures should be of real interest. And it seems astonishing if so, that they aren’t more widespread.

One such catalyst, Enerburn from a company called Enerteck, was originally developed by Exxon and Nalco Chemical and claims proven fuel efficiency improvement of 8-12 per cent in various diesel engine applications plus NOx reductions averaging 10-11 per cent and a 50-70 per cent reduction in particulates. Another, H2Oil, has a letter of no objection from Wärtsilä, and a case study on a Yang Ming container ship which shows verified fuel savings of between 8.1 and 12 per cent.

With figures like that I asked Enerteck President Gary Aman why the marine industry wasn’t beating a path to his door, and the door of other additive producers. ” Too many technologies make claims that just are not true. They are sold and then cannot perform. It really hurts the market.”

H2Oil agree that too many claims are being made, but believes the real problem lies in the lack of agreed and approved methodology behind evaluating the additives. “Fuel saving claims for devices and additives are rampant right now, but these are typically anecdotal or supported by poorly conceived testing protocols,” says Technical Director Richard Hicks.”It is our opinion that there is no widely accepted testing protocol yet developed which is able to accurately predict average real life fuel savings over a large number of vehicles/ships. Most fuel savings claims are based on a single test on a single vehicle/ship operating under a unique set of conditions.”

Which begs the question, why aren’t there? When the cost and emissions from bunkers are so incredibly high on the shipping agenda why hasn’t this potentially promising area been more thoroughly looked at? Dimitris Argyros, Lead Consultant, Environment & Sustainability at Lloyd’s Register Marine and one of the authors of its GMFT2030 report says whilst additives can potentially deliver benefits in terms of reduced wear/tear and reduced emissions, the scale of NOx emissions reductions required is a significant challenge to achieve using emulsification or additives alone.

“At LR, we have been involved in full scale trials with technology developers and ship operators, but whilst promising in some areas, the emissions reductions achieved to date are simply not sufficient to help comply with the 0.10% limit for SOx or with NOx Tier III unless alternative fuels or emissions abatement devices are used. These techniques, if successful, may provide part of the solution combined with other techniques.”

But surely we want any emissions reduction we can get, and fuel saved is emissions saved. And this technology could benefit every vessel in the fleet, with no upfront infrastructure investment or change of operations, tomorrow. If credible testing protocols are required, surely that’s a job for Class?

“There have been cases of fuel additives and similar technologies which appear to defy basic laws of chemistry,” says Argyros.”At LR we try to keep an open mind and offer our support in independently verifying performance claims, however in many cases we are not provided with sufficient information/data to carry out any meaningful analysis or verification.”

The Lockheed Martin Compact Nuclear Fusion research team

The Lockheed Martin Compact Nuclear Fusion research team

Which seems to throw the ball back into the additive manufacturer’s court. Looking at them in the round they are mostly small companies without well-known maritime brands. If their technology really does work then one wonders if the real problem is that they lack the critical mass, brand power and marketing dollars to make the industry partnerships, and noise that are required. Ben Song, New Business Director of H2Oil takes a different view.

“I think the size of company doesn’t matter much. The potential and credential of a technical product are the main factors,” he says. “I believe a good product should not have the problem of lacking marketing dollars.”

It’s a noble but potentially very naive view, particularly for a company trying to sell into a notoriously insular industry like shipping. H2Oil believes it knows exactly why additives have not been embraced or even considered by shipping though. “We should be clear. The oil companies or government agencies will never embrace any technology which is capable of reducing their profitability or tax base,” says Richard Hicks. “Always follow the money if you want to know why something apparently strange happens in business. Between them, these powerful groups have many tools to limit the widespread use of fuel saving technologies. Even large corporations can easily be prevented from introducing any new technology which the oil company cartel does not approve. Protectionism is alive and well in the oil industry.”

Okay, except according to everyone I’ve spoken to in the bunkering industry, the plain truth of the matter is that the oil industry really doesn’t care very much about marine fuels. According to an ex-oil company executive the marine fuels division had a turnover that would have put it in the FTSE100, but it made absolutely nothing in profit. Plus in the maritime industry it isn’t just ship operators who are buying fuel, it’s charters too. And I can find no evidence to support the idea that either are being leant on not to use fuel saving additives by oil companies or anyone else.

Surely there’s a strong imperative to direct some research dollars to a technology that could potentially make a small, but significant difference to everyone in shipping?

There’s a reason that this is significant, and that’s because some of these additives—both fuel and lube oils—are leveraging some really cutting-edge technology. Nanotechnology is already helping the oil and gas industry to both identify and extract previously uneconomic oil and it’s that same technology which is now finding its way into additives. So it’s important that our industry continues to evaluate these technologies and identify those which could really help us. Because they are changing and improving all the time.

When one considers the research going into technologies which we all know are never going to be a suitable solution for every ship in the fleet, surely there’s a strong imperative to direct some research dollars to one which could make a small, but significant difference to absolutely everyone. Particularly if we are looking at bunkers remaining dominant in the near term.

We’ve talked about a bridge. But what no one can really get their heads around is what’s likely to be on the other side. I’m fond of telling the maritime industry that it’s unique—just like everybody else. But on this occasion, when it comes to the fuel that ships—and particularly deep sea ships—are going to use in the future, we do have a unique challenge.

Like aeronautical, maritime has to ensure that whatever fuel it uses, it offers a great deal of mobility and security of operation. For other transport industries, and consumers ashore the developments in battery power and solar are going to begin to change the way they operate quite quickly. But for us it doesn’t look as though those are really going to be real game-changers.

There is only one really game-changing fuel development on the horizon that could deliver what hydrocarbons currently do. In fact it could do far, far better.

The ITER project is an international scientific project designed to build a demonstration nuclear fusion reactor to deliver power to the consumer grid. There seems little doubt amongst experts that it will manage First Plasma by 2020 and be operating at full fusion by 2030.

But it is in the area of Compact Nuclear Fusion, announced last year by Lockheed Martin, that it seems most likely shipping, and aeronautical’s paradigm shift may lie. Lockheed’s notional 100MW compact fusion reactor would measure roughly 10 metres by 7 metres in diameter. It will fit on the back of a truck, and is a similar size to a shipping container. But it could power 80,000 homes, or vessels, or aeroplanes, eliminating the need to refuel and offering unlimited range. According to Lockheed it would burn less than 20 kg of fuel in an entire year of operation.

What’s really exciting though, is the timescales. Because of the size of the reactor, instead of taking four years to design, build and test one, the whole cycle can be completed in as little as a year. They are looking at an operational prototype within around four years. Coincidentally, the same sort of timescale as Rolls-Royce’s prototype autonomous ship.

Fusion has always been the fuel of the future, but its time is widely believed to be close at hand. Shipping expects its ships to have a 25-30 year lifespan and the implementation horizon for fusion is well within that. For a more in-depth analysis of the technology read this issue’s “Sunlit Uplands” article.

Fusion will be a turning point for the energy mix for the globe, but of all the potential fuel technologies around, compact nuclear fusion would have a truly profound effect on ships and aircraft. In combination with autonomous operation, it would usher in a whole new era for shipping that was genuinely sustainable, and profitable too.

So what is the upshot of all this? Well, probably that the real fuel of the future for the maritime industry isn’t available yet. That, in short, there is no right answer—no ‘silver bullet’ as DNV GL describe it. The hard truth is that fuel is becoming ever more complex and requires an entirely different and more strategic approach than it has done in the past. In common with almost every other area of operation the situation is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And whilst the advent of nuclear fusion is a genuinely near-term prospect, it isn’t going to solve your problems tomorrow.

What can contribute to solving them are other technologies that are around now. Like the relentless gathering and analysis of data from sensors using the industrial internet, the streamlining and transparency of the bunker industry, and the restructuring of shipping organisations to consider fuel not just as a consumable to be purchased as cheaply as possible, but an area of competitive advantage.

When it comes to fuel, and a lot of other things besides, shipping has been considered to have a bunker mentality, in every sense. But there is a generation moving into shipping who take criticism of shipping’s environmental performance on the chin. For whom being expected to use sustainable fuels and methods of operation aren’t a bloody nuisance, but a morally and ethically necessary cost of doing business.

And to be honest, the real fuel of the future, is them.

Images courtesy © Getty Images/DNV GL/Lade/Carnival/Eric Schulzinger, Lockheed Martin Co

This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Futurenautics.

Issue 8 | Fuels

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