Maersk Talks Algae: Joint R&D Program Aims to Shed Light on Future Use of Algae-based Biofuels

As gCaptain reported earlier, shipping conglomerate Maersk and the U.S. Navy have been collaborating on a unique and possibly ground-breaking R&D program that will test the use of algae-based biofuel to power ships.  With any luck, the program will shed light on how biofuels, a natural and sustainable alternative to other fossil fuels, can be used to diversify a vessels fuel supply and improve environmental performance.  Here, Maersk sheds some light on the joint-R&D program and address’ the challenges, and possibilities, that come with the use algae-based biofuel.

Algae to power Maersk Kalmar container. Photo: Maersk

Can a ship sail on algae power? That’s the expectation as a partnership involving the United States Navy and a handful of Maersk companies gets underway.

For the Maersk Group’s fleet of more than 1,300 vessels, biofuels pose a host of potential advantages—and real challenges. One project underway right now is exploring the prospects of one especially green fuel.

Maersk Line’s 300-meter long Maersk Kalmar container vessel is sailing its normal route from Bremerhaven, Germany to Pipavav, India, delivering cargo to the usual ports along the way. However, during its one-month-long, 6,500 nautical mile voyage, Kalmar will be doing something very much out of the ordinary—it will be burning 30 tonnes of fuel derived from algae.

A team of engineers from Maersk Line, Limited, Maersk Maritime Technology and Maersk Line are onboard Maersk Kalmar running the project. They are testing blends of the fuel—which is clear, not green—ranging from 7 percent algae fuel up to 100 percent in one of the ship’s auxiliary engines. That means Maersk Kalmar isn’t actually sailing on algae power, yet; the energy produced will only power the ship’s electronics. But if all goes as planned, the main engine could also eventually run on algae fuel.

“The properties of this fuel are similar to marine gas oil, so if we can successfully run the auxiliary engine on this fuel for long periods of time as we suspect, we will also be able safely use it in the main engine as well,” says Klaus Jørgensen, engineer in Maersk Maritime Technology.

The challenges with biofuel

Two of the biggest challenges surrounding biofuels are the price and sustainability. Any alternative fuel must be available on a large commercial scale and should not have a negative impact on agricultural production, says Maersk Line’s Jacob Sterling.

“Biofuel made from algae is one of the less developed biofuels and with further technological advancements it has the potential to be scaled up without impacting agriculture,” says Sterling. “At this point it is early days for biofuels, so our focus is to continue pursuing tests and partnerships like this to keep building our knowledge around a variety of technologies and fuel types.”

Fuel for the future

The U.S. Navy, which is the main sponsor of the test and also supplying the 30 tonnes of algae fuel, intends to source 50 percent of its energy from alternative fuel types by 2020 as a part of its ‘Great Green Fleet’ initiative. For Maersk Line, testing of biofuels is part of a wider strategy for reducing it’s the CO2 emissions. By 2020, it is Maersk Line’s target to have reduced its CO2 emissions by 25% per container moved, compared to 2007 – a target that will be reached by means of efficiency gains.

“The shipping industry needs to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas intensity in the coming decades. In the short term, we can gain a lot by focusing on improving energy efficiency. In the longer term, say 15 years or more, we would like to see sustainable biofuels become a commercially available low-carbon fuel,” said Jacob Sterling, Head of Climate and Environment for Maersk Line.

Source: Maersk