You are here

Nanotechnology can cure shipping’s sulphur conundrum

Nanotechnology can cure shipping’s sulphur conundrum
Venkatraman Sheshashayee August 24th, 2018

In October 2016, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) announced that January 1 2020 would be the implementation date for a significant reduction in the sulphur content of the fuel oil used by ships. The decision agreed to implement a global sulphur limit of 0.50% m/m (mass/mass) against the 3.5% m/m global limit currently in place.

This should not have come as a surprise. This was not an agenda item included as an afterthought. The IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) has been discussing this step for more than a decade (with the first amendments being discussed and agreed as far back as 2008), having recognised that the shipping industry needs to meet its environmental obligations. The reductions in sulphur oxide emissions resulting from the lower global sulphur limit are expected to have a significant beneficial impact on the environment and on human health.

So, what did our industry do? We waited. We waited because there was a clause that said that a review will be undertaken by 2018 in order to assess whether sufficient compliant fuel oil would be available to meet the 2020 date. We did not considering investing in research on possible approaches and solutions, we did not engage with chemists and laboratories, we did not consult technologists and think-tanks. We waited.

Now, the review is done. It has concluded that sufficient compliant fuel oil would be available to meet the fuel oil requirements. The sulphur cap will come into force in 2020.

The industry, surprisingly, seems to have been caught by surprise. Many of us thought (and hoped and wished) that this situation would be averted at the last minute, and the implementation date would be pushed back to 2025. Now that it is around the corner, we are scrambling. And in our scrambling, we have set our sights on a dilapidated technology called scrubbing, which was invented in 1858.

The technology on which scrubbers are based is very basic. They work by dissolving or absorbing pollutants from a gas stream into a scrubbing liquid that is then treated and discharged (open loop) or neutralised and reused (closed loop). However, the actual scrubber installation is quite cumbersome and complex and includes the scrubber, water and process pumps, piping, tanks, fans, separators, dosing units, valves, containment systems, monitoring equipment, etc. A scrubber also requires substantial power, and for the majority of vessels, will need the installation of additional generating capacity. Further, funnels, deck compartments and cargo holds will need to be modified.

The installation of a scrubber and the concomitant modifications onto an existing vessel is a major project, and in my opinion (and the opinion of many technical experts), the scale of this is being seriously underestimated. Most shipyards currently lack retrofit experience. Optimistically, a typical exhaust scrubber retrofit can take between 6-12 weeks in the shipyard – excluding the pre-planning design and engineering stages. Practically, a complete exhaust gas scrubber installation takes about one year from selection to designing to engineering to procurement to docking and finally commissioning.

As my understanding of scrubbers and the complexity associated with them gradually developed, I began asking many senior managers across the shipping industry – why is our industry (capitalised at close to $1trn, provider of more than 25m jobs (direct, indirect and induced), transporter of more than $8trn worth of goods every year) choosing to go with scrubbers? And the resigned answer was – because we do not know of any other options. We only know steel; for all else, we rely on others to give us solutions, and accept whatever they provide. Sadly, these solutions often benefit them much more than us, and leave us continuously dependent on their whims.

Onlookers are amazed that when the maritime industry has to make a choice that has the potential to impact the viability and sustainability of our ships and the companies that own and operate them, we look back and choose an antiquated and cumbersome approach. Shouldn’t we be looking forward and capitalising on the amazing progress that science and technology has made in the last 160 years since the first scrubber saw the light of day? Has no one asked – Why should we not remove sulphur at the source? Why should we wait till we burn the fuel and then try and remove the sulphur from the exhaust gas? Isn’t prevention known to be better than cure?

Asking these questions led me to an area our industry doesn’t seem to have considered or studied – nanotechnology. This is a science first posited in the fifties, and that has been developing steadily since the eighties. Nanotechnology is about manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Because of the variety of potential applications (including industrial and military), governments and corporates across the world have invested billions of dollars in nanotechnology research. Nanotechnology impacts fields of science as diverse as surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics, energy storage, micro-fabrication and molecular engineering.

I learnt that nanotech research on fuel has been going on for more than 15 years and that today, it contributes hugely to the production of fuel-grade distillate from petroleum residues. This process is profitable, cheap and extremely efficient.

My journey led me to two nanotech companies, one in North America and one in Asia, who have developed processes to separate out and extract the molecular sulphur from fuel oil and bring the sulphur content to less than 0.5%. The processes have been independently tested and verified to comply with global standards. And that is not all. Because of the ‘refining’, the nano-fuel oil actually delivers more calorific output, and allows engines to run at lower exhaust gas temperatures and to leave negligible residues. The best part is that the processing equipment to deliver the nano-fuel oil is affordable, the installation and operation is cost-effective, and the final cost of the nano-fuel oil is only about 5% more than ordinary high sulphur fuel oil. The processing plant can be installed either onshore or onboard. Shipowners could finally take control of the quality of bunkers that power their engines.

Nanotech appears to offer a far more elegant and progressive solution than scrubbing. It removes the problem at the source, rather than wrestling with it when it can be too late. It does not require cumbersome installations and the associated downtime, or increased power generation, or convoluted piping, or the worry about effluents and water capacity and maintenance. The process is already in use onshore, in power plants and factories.

This nanotech solution has the potential to save the industry close to $3m per vessel in capital costs and $1.5m per vessel in operating costs. Extrapolating this across the global fleet, savings can add up to more than $160bn.

We, the maritime industry, need to learn to embrace and invest in technology. We need to invest in research, we need to encourage and reward innovation, we need to embed learning and creativity in our organisations. This is the only way that the industry can move past the stormy seas that assail us, and find our way home.