The first Australian grain ship to test the economic and ecological benchmarks of biofuels


The country’s first biofuel-powered grain ship is expected to leave port on Sunday, just the second time the renewable fuel alternative has been used in an Australian export ship.

Edwine Oldendorff is transporting 30,000 tonnes of malting barley from Albany, Western Australia to Vietnam in a trial commissioned by the grain handling cooperative CBH.

“We will be measuring carbon emissions on this trip. We are aiming for a 15% reduction,” said Jason Craig, Commercial Director of CBH.

The ship was narrowly beaten at Australia’s first milestone by a biofuel-powered vessel that left Gladstone in December.

Ironically, this ship, which reduced its emissions by 9%, was carrying 160,000 tonnes of coal to India for steelmaking.

Both trials used recycled vegetable oil mixed with bunker oil, the fossil fuel that powers nearly all of global shipping.

What is bunker oil? What is biofuel?

Bunker oil has a consistency similar to tar. It is the heaviest and least refined fossil fuel derived from crude oil.

“When you process crude oil and refine it, the last two qualities are tar and [bunker] gasoline. Diesel is a more refined form of fuel oil, ”said Oldendorff Carriers WA harbor master Gautam Malhotra.

Bunker oil is second only to road tar as the heaviest by-product of crude oil.(Wikimedia Commons: Glasbruch2007)

As the cheapest fuel available, it is widely used by commercial vessels.

Ships like Edwine Oldendorff consume around 29 to 30 tonnes of fuel per day, Mr Malhotra said.

“I have seen large container ships using up to 70 or 80 tonnes a day.”

William Reinsch, president of international affairs at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the move away from bunker fuel was both desirable and inevitable.

Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are produced from natural biomass – it can be vegetable oils, sugar cane, corn or animal waste.

These fuels burn cleaner than fossil fuels, but still produce emissions.

“Not a big step forward”

“Biofuel as a supplement is not a huge step forward, but on the other hand, bunker oil is heavier and emissions are higher,” Mr. Reinsch said.

The amount of biofuel that can be blended for use in existing engines is limited. It is hoped that tests like Edwine Oldendorff’s will reveal how much it is possible to use and how many emissions can be reduced.

“At this point it’s hard to say [how efficient the fuel will be]”Mr. Malhotra said.

Mr Craig confirmed that CBH paid a premium to fund the trial, but did not disclose how the vegetable oil blend was more expensive than regular bunker oil.

a man wearing a helmet stands in front of a ship in port
Jason Craig says the move makes good business sense.(ABC: Angus Mackintosh)

“There are a few little extra costs, but it still makes good economic sense and makes business sense,” he said.

Either way, existing ship engines cannot run on pure biofuel.

To significantly reduce or eliminate emissions from shipping, a long-term replacement is needed.

Choose and choose

“Green hydrogen, which is produced by separating hydrogen from water, has zero emissions and in the long run is the best way to go, but it’s not yet commercially viable,” Mr. Reinsch.

Unlike biofuels, hydrogen cannot be mixed with conventional fossil fuels and requires completely new engines and fuel storage systems.

“If price was the only criterion, biofuels would have an advantage, but it’s a matter of the climate,” Reinsch said.

The world’s largest shipping company, Maersk, has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 using another alternative fuel, methanol, a form of alcohol.

Last year, Maersk announced plans to build eight container ships from 2024 that will run on “carbon neutral methanol”.

“For us, this is the ideal type of large vessel to enable sustainable global trade on the high seas,” said Henriette Hallberg Thygesen, Head of Fleet and Strategic Brands at Maersk.

“We are confident that we will succeed in obtaining the necessary carbon neutral methanol.”

an ethanol fuel pump
While ethanol is added to unleaded gasoline, its use in commercial shipping is still limited.(ABC Television)

With billions of dollars in investments in both methanol and hydrogen, the race is on to completely replace bunker oil, but biofuel cannot pay for itself in the long run.

“We have a very active biofuels industry in the United States and most of it is ethanol which comes primarily from corn,” said Mr. Reinsch.

“He hasn’t grasped the shipping alternative yet, but I think they will get there as the United States is in the process of converting its fleet of cars to electric.

“This will reduce the demand for gasoline and ethanol and corn growers will be looking for new places to sell.”

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