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Shipping industry sees 'significant changes' ahead

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The shipping industry is facing one of “the most significant changes” in its history come 2020 when the IMO regulation on a global fuel sulphur cap of 0.5% is enforced.


Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems Association (EGCSA) director Don Gregory made this remark at the Asian Emissions Technology conference held in Singapore on Monday.


Industry players who attended the conference were informed on a variety of topics ranging from the impact of particulate matter (PM), the projected new marine fuels landscape in three years' time, to the options that operators have to comply with the IMO regulation.


“The 2020 fuel sulphur cap at 0.5% impacting 55,000 ships worldwide probably represents one of the most significant changes for maritime history,” Mr Gregory told the conference audience.


Today ships are required to burn bunker fuel with a maximum sulphur content of 3.5%, and the upcoming sulphur limit of 0.5% is considered a drastic drop by many in the industry.


While the 0.5% sulphur cap is a welcome move, University of Rostock professor of analytical chemistry Ralf Zimmermanna said the regulation should also extend to control the emissions of PM, an inhalable fine dust suspended in air many of which are hazardous.


“PM is what we need to fight – nothing else,” Professor Zimmermann affirmed. He said the use of exhaust gas treatment system would need to include particle filtration to remove PM, but there is a general lack of awareness on the dangers of the fine dust pollutant.


The issue of tackling PM emissions has been neglected, at least for now, as operators have their hands full in trying to decide on the method of compliance ahead of 2020. Options were discussed at the conference, including the installation of exhaust gas treatment systems, and the use of alternative fuel sources and distillates.


Gulf Oil Marine director Jackson Davis believes that the majority of ships will simply buy 0.5% fuels, or distillates, as the easiest option, but this would mean significantly higher bunker bills.


The huge price differential between the use of distillates and high sulphur bunker fuel is also the factor that will drive investments for scrubbers, according to CR Ocean Engineering president Nicholas Confuorto.


But the uptake of scrubbers is likely to come late and create a bottleneck in retrofitting as shipowners are unlikely to pre-invest at the moment, more so under the current sluggish business environment as a result of low freight rates and tonnage oversupply, a view shared by MAN Diesel & Turbo's head of marine and offshore sales Kjeld Aabo and IHS Markit vice president Victor Shum.


The use of alternative fuel sources like biofuels and methanol was also discussed during the conference. Nanyang Technological University's senior scientist Dr Prapisala Thepsithar presented the case on the use of biofuels, saying it is a clean and low carbon alternative but the drawbacks include the release of carbon monoxide and NOx.


Methanol Institute's chief operating officer Chris Chatterton shared that methanol is a promising long term alternative to bunker fuel due to its qualities of being able to remove more than 90% of the major pollutants such as sulphur, NOx and PM, as well as the product's ready availability with China accounting for 50% of the world's production.


Another advantage of using methanol is that the fuel is easier to handle compared to LNG as methanol is a liquid and does not need to be held frozen nor be under a specific set of pressures.


LNG is another clean gas option that shipping is considering and planning to use. The hurdle to a total switch to LNG by the global fleet is the lack of a global interconnected LNG bunkering network, an absence of an adequate number of LNG bunker tankers to service receiving vessels, and its inability to cut emissions of CO2.


“The use of LNG is like giving up smoking but taking up drinking,” said Chelsea Technologies Group's maritime manager Stephanie Lavelle. She explained that the process of extracting the natural gas and transporting them are contributing to CO2 emissions despite the use of LNG itself emits virtually zero CO2.