Can agricultural waste help clean up the world’s dirty cargo ships?

A California startup backed by shipping giant Maersk wants to turn American agricultural waste into clean fuel for gigantic container ships. The company, Waste Fuel, is working on building facilities across the country that produce “biomethanol” from corn husks, discarded wheat straw and other agricultural wastes – a low-carbon fuel produced today in small amounts.

The biomethanol from these facilities would then be transported by railcar to major ports, Trevor Nielson, president and CEO of WasteFuel, told Grist. Offshore methanol-powered ships on the west coast of the United States could, for example, refuel before heading to China, Japan or Vietnam with containers full of pet food, cotton and junk. .

WasteFuel’s plans are part of a larger effort to reduce emissions in the global shipping industry, whose ships run almost exclusively on fossil fuels. Cargo ships contribute nearly 3 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions – a number that is expected to increase as global trade expands. In shipping, around 80 percent of emissions come from ocean-going vessels. These ocean-going vessels are particularly difficult to clean as they often sail for weeks and travel thousands of kilometers between refueling, and have limited space on board. for fuel tanks or batteries.

“We have a huge opportunity to tackle the more difficult aspects of decarbonization,” including long haul and heavy haulage, Nielson said from his home in Malibu, which overlooks waters clogged by southern ships. California. Record congestion around the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles has resulted in increased air pollution from idling ships and truck traffic.

For shipowners, bio-methanol is a promising alternative to dirty bunker fuel, as it can be used by transforming the engines of existing ships. The problem is that only a handful of relatively small facilities manufacture the fuel around the world. Bio-methanol is also expensive to produce, up to seven times more expensive than conventional methanol from fossil fuels, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The first of WasteFuel’s planned bio-methanol facilities is expected to be completed in a few years, said Neilson, although the company has yet to disclose its location. In addition to bio-methanol, WasteFuel plans to produce other low-carbon fuels for airplanes and freight trucks made from landfill waste in the Philippines and Mexico, respectively.

For biomethanol and other biofuels to play a meaningful role in reducing emissions from shipping, clean fuel producers will need to dramatically increase production and cut costs over the next few decades, said Eric Tan, senior research engineer. to United States National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, in Colorado. “Scalability is very important,” he said, “and the cost of fuel has to be competitive.”

In a recent study, Tan and his colleagues found that the United States had abundant amounts of raw materials that could be turned into biofuels, enough to meet a significant portion of the annual needs of the global shipping industry by 2040. With technological improvements, supportive government policy and more efficient means of sourcing raw materials, US producers could achieve the “critical mass” needed to reduce the carbon footprint of shipping, the researchers said.

Companies will soon have to start using these fuels in order to stay on track to meet global climate goals, according to industry experts. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates global shipping, aims to halve total industry emissions from 2008 levels by mid-century, and to completely decarbonize by 2100.

Last week, a group of giant retail companies including Amazon and IKEA have said that by 2040 they will only import goods on ships using zero-carbon fuels, including hydrogen and ammonia made with renewable electricity.

Marine analysts say it’s not yet clear which low and zero carbon technologies will prevail as companies strive to meet these goals. This uncertainty has prompted some shipowners to postpone ordering new vessels for fear of betting on the wrong solution.

Maersk, on the other hand, bet at least $ 1.4 billion on ships and supplies fueled by methanol.

Toxic alcohol is mainly used to make chemicals for paints, plastics, and cosmetics, and almost everything is produced with natural gas or coal. When burned, methanol produces little air pollution. Only about 20 ships use, or will soon use, methanol as fuel – mostly tankers carrying methanol that fill up in their cargo holds. (In the 1990s, American passenger cars like the Ford Taurus and the Dodge Intrepid were built to use a methanol-gasoline blend before the fuel fell out of favor.)

From a climate perspective, however, methanol from natural gas is worse than commonly used fuels, such as marine diesel. Maersk and other shipping companies are therefore focusing on the development of both bio-methanol and “e-methanol”, made from renewable electricity. According to the International Council for Clean Transport, biomethanol from plant biomass can reduce life cycle emissions “from well to wake up” by 70 to 80% compared to marine diesel.

In August, Maersk said it had ordered eight mega container ships capable of running on methanol, with the first to join its fleet in early 2024. The Danish shipping company also plans to operate a methanol-burning vessel in Europe in 2023. The company recognized a huge complication to these plans: only about 220,000 metric tons of green methanol are produced annually, compared to the 330 million metric tons of fuel that the shipping industry consumes each year.

“It will be a significant challenge to find an adequate supply of carbon neutral methanol on time to launch this technology,” said Henriette Hallberg Thygesen, CEO of the Fleet and Strategic Brands division of Maersk, in a report earlier this year. (The company did not return requests for comment.)

Maersk is supporting WasteFuel and other fuel producers to close the gap. In September, the company announced that it had invested in WasteFuel for an undisclosed amount, a move that made shipping giant WasteFuel the biggest investor and placed a Maersk executive on the startup’s board. Maersk is invest also in another clean energy start-up, Prometheus Fuels, and signed a contract purchase e-methanol from a planned facility in Denmark.

WasteFuel talks to about 30 owners of farm waste in the United States and overseas and plans to eventually license existing technology from other developers, Nielson said. Bio-methanol can be made by fermenting organic material in an anaerobic digester or subjecting material to high temperatures to produce synthetic gas and then processing it in a reactor. The latter process is particularly capital and energy intensive, and neither is widely used in large business operations. “The issue of scale is an issue we all need to address,” he acknowledged.

According to Maersk, green fuels like biomethanol will be two to three times more expensive than petroleum-based marine fuels. But because the ships are so huge and carry so many containers on their decks, the final cost to consumers will be around an additional 50 cents on a pair of running shoes, Nielson said.

There are other obstacles to increasing bio-methanol and other biofuels, said Tan, the NREL engineer. The collection, cleaning and storage of raw materials entail significant costs for fuel producers. And as chemical companies and airlines turn to biofuels to reduce emissions, competition for waste feedstocks will intensify.

Nielson said building bio-methanol facilities near waste collection locations, such as farms or landfills, can help reduce the cost of securing raw materials. It also ensures that corn husks, leftover food and waste are fresh when they enter the facility, an important step as decaying organic material emits methane. The sooner the waste enters the system, the more methane can be turned into fuel – and the less it ends up in the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas.

Noting the challenges facing WasteFuel, Neilson said that a key difference between past and present attempts to increase bio-methanol supplies is that large companies are increasingly responding to pressure from activists to fight change. climate.

“It changes the economy,” he said. “The finance people, the consumer products people are listening.”