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Singapore: VPS panel discussion presents a masterclass in shipping’s biofuel bunker adoption issues to the deck

22 Feb 2023

Delegates were exposed to the latest trends and perspectives at a recent panel discussion session comprising of executives from marine fuel testing firm VPS, Global Centre for Maritime Decarbonisation (GCMD), Wilhelmsen Ship Management, and the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO).

The session, held as part of the VPS Biofuels Seminar, was moderated by Captain Rahul Choudhuri, Managing Director for Asia, Middle East & Africa (AMEA) at VPS.

“The role of biofuels is an important step in the direction of a viable option for an alternative fuel source,” said Captain Choudhuri.

“It is not the only option but it is gaining momentum and we have seen a drastic change from pre-Covid to post-Covid in terms on greater usage of biofuels.

“But it needs to be understood if we are to use it successfully and safely in the shipping industry.

“This is the motivation for us to have our VPS Biofuels Seminar in Singapore. This interaction is necessary to understand different points of view and find a pragmatic path forward for greener fuels.”

He emphasised Singapore has been the first country to have developed a provisional national standard on specifications of marine biofuel (WA 2:2022), which global adoption is important.

Captain Rahul Choudhuri

“WA 2:2022 shows that Singapore port is ready, the technical experience is there, and the quality is assured,” said Captain Choudhuri, who was also the Chairman of the committee involved in its development.

“However, I was fairly disappointed that ISO [the International Organization for Standardization] has been in my opinion parochial and maybe too political to accept WA 2:2022 which is technically robust.”

Global Centre for Maritime Decarbonisation – Assurance framework in development

Dr Prapisala Thepsithar, Director, Research & Projects, GCMD believed a firm set of standards such as WA 2:2022 will be necessary for the future safe use and adoption of biofuels as a bunker fuel.

She revealed GCMD has been developing an assurance framework to ascertain quantity, quality and greenhouse gas (GHG) abatement for green marine fuels.

“We foresee during the energy transition, green fuel production will ramp up with the introduction of biofuels into the marine fuel supply chain and we need a framework to differentiate certain martials [i.e. gray/bio/green/blue methanol, green/blue/brown ammonia],” she explained.

“Our first assurance framework project is focused on biofuels including FAME, HVO and crude algae oil where we monitor the quality of biofuel from the country of origin until blending and bunkering operations – which to date we have not discovered any quality issues.”

Still, Dr Thepsithar pointed out the case may be different in the time ahead when demand increases – incentivising players to inflate the quantity of biofuels through the addition of chemicals and foreign material.

“So that’s why I think the robust standard [including WA 2:2022] is necessary.”

In addition, she noted GCMD has been conducting extensive laboratory work on long-term degradation and compatibility tests of marine biofuels in this project.

“We are still lacking quite a lot of data to support findings; certain parameters have to be established in order to measure empirical evidence,” she noted.

“I believe WA 2:2022 presents very reasonable parameters for this activity.”

Dr Thepsithar also noted GCMD working with VPS to incorporate “fingerprinting” technology into its assurance framework.

VPS – Trials biofuel ‘fingerprinting’ technology using GC-MS techniques

“This [fingerprinting] work that we’re doing with GCMD is quite ground breaking,” said Steve Bee, Group Commercial Director, VPS who added: “The science is there, we just need to just tweak it.”

Though still in its early stages, Bee shared Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) techniques employed has shown it being able to identify the differences between biofuels based on palm oil, soya, and more with some unexpected (but useful) results.

“Initial signs are really, really encouraging and positive,” he shared.

“We have seen examples where suppliers say ‘It’s compound X which is a completely renewable, sustainable product made from waste’ and we’ve identified the biofuel being made from palm oil – completely different to what they actually said was in their fuel.

“It’s still early days, but I say the signs are all really positive; the physical trace element will help GCMD develop confidence and traceability and transparency in the supply chain.”

Wilhelmsen Ship Management (WSM) – ‘Money the driver’ for bio feedstock production

Carl Schou, CEO of WSM, meanwhile offered his perspective on biofuel production, green marine fuel corridors, and the influence of ‘big and strong’ shipowners over methanol as a bunker fuel during the panel discussion.

“When the shipping sector increasingly adopts biofuels as bunkers, farmers might choose to produce crops as a bunker feedstock over human consumption; if farmers get a higher price for fuel is pretty obvious what they will be doing,” he predicted.

“Hence, this has to be seen from all sides so we don’t start competing with food production. As always, money is the driver. If somebody gets more money, then obviously it will go in that direction.”

According to Schou, a number of shipping corridors with different bunker fuel types will start to emerge on the back of approaching IMO 2030/2050.

“I know there are several projects ongoing with different corridors with various fuels such as ammonia, biofuels and more. I don’t think we will see a situation where we have a global supply of one or the other [type of alternative bunker fuel],” he stated.

“So, this is also going to be another challenge added to this whole fuel issue.

“If you want to trade Singapore to China then it’s kind of a biofuel corridor. If you do Middle East to Singapore then it’s different type of fuels. This is something which I think we are seeing panning out now.”

A few “big and strong” shipowners have also been setting the precedence for the adoption of methanol as a marine fuel, noted Schou.

“A lot of the driving force [for green fuels] will be coming from the big players, and then you have the smaller players who will follow up,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, the smaller players might try to avoid a lot of this because the focus is on the bigger players.

“So, it’s a double-edged sword here.”

INTERTANKO – ‘Agnostic’ on alternative bunker fuel types for IMO GHG goals

During the session, Elfian Harun, Regional Manager Southeast Asia & Environment Manager, INTERTANKO said the organisation was “agnostic” on the type of alternative fuels that could meet the long-term objective of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s GHG goals.

“However, there are a couple of caveats. These include fuels to be not harmful to ship’s crew; fuels to be available worldwide; and to be provided with solid certified documentation regarding its carbon footprint,” informed Harun.

Regarding regulatory hurdles for the adoption of biofuels as bunkers, Harun pointed out there is a need for consistent approval procedures by Flag States for the use of biofuel on vessels.

“IMO will have to sort this out before any fuel is declared ‘alternative’ as far as the decarbonisation regulations are concerned.”

The current debate from the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) perspective for biofuels will also need to be addressed.

“A number of sustainability factors are currently being considered for inclusion in the draft LCA Guidelines,” he said.

“These would have an impact on how biofuels will be lower GHG emitters when compared to conventional fossil fuels especially from a Well-to-Wake (WtW) perspective, in particular, the Well-to-Tank (WtT) component.

“Currently, ten sustainability themes/aspects [GHG emission levels, carbon source, source of electricity/energy, Direct Land-Use Change, Indirect Land Use Change, impact on water supply, impact on air quality, impact on soil health, impact from chemical or wastes released during production, impact on ecosystem biodiversity] are being discussed for inclusion in the LCA guidelines.

“Some of these appear to be particularly targeted at ensuring biomass crops are sustainable and should not cause mitigating actions to address these aspects, which may in turn, lead to increase in GHG emissions.”

Operational concerns for the use of biofuels as bunkers will also need to be resolved, as there is a need for real-world experiences to be documented and shared among users of biofuel.

“Eventually, a standard procedure would need to be developed for the safe use of biofuel as fuel for ships,” he ends.

(Left to Right) Steve Bee, Elfian Harun, Carl Schou, Dr Prapisala Thepsithar, Captain Rahul Choudhuri

Related: VPS: The importance of bunker fuel chemical screening and why it can no longer be ignored
Related: VPS: Shipowners turn to ‘highly reactive’ Cashew Nut Shell Liquid (CNSL) biofuel blends for marine fuel


Photo credit: Manifold Times
Published: 22 February, 2023

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