Nanotechnology can cure shipping’s sulphur conundrum

Nanotechnology can cure shipping’s sulphur conundrum

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.

Venkatraman Sheshashayee

Venkatraman Sheshashayee (Shesh) is Managing Director of Radical Advice, a business transformation advisory based in Singapore. He has over 34 years of experience in manufacturing, shipping and offshore oil & gas. Shesh’s previous roles include CEO of Miclyn Express Offshore, CEO & ED of Jaya Holdings Limited and Managing Director of Greatship Global. In his new avatar, Shesh helps SMEs, start-ups and aspiring professionals achieve their potential.

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25 Comments

  1. Andrew Craig-Bennett
    August 24, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    Yes!

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 1:34 pm

      Thank you, Andrew.

  2. Carl
    August 24, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    Amazing if the solution is this “simple”

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 1:45 pm

      Thank you, Carl.

      The nanotech approach has its attendant requirements – positioning and installing the processing unit, arranging for continuous supply of fresh water, safely disposing the extracted sulphur, etc. Having said this, the system has been designed to be compact and modular, and the process flow has been thought through comprehensively and well, so implementation should not be cumbersome.

      I will be sharing more details shortly, and look forward to your feedback and inputs.

      Warm regards,

      Shesh.

  3. Alisdair Pettigrew
    August 24, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    As you rightly say, nano technology in shipping has been around for almost two decades. I have worked with some companies in this field. There are limitations (excessive water requirements, for example) that have held it back. I think we need to be careful in calling a panacea. It would have happened by now.

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 1:52 pm

      Thank you, Alisdair.

      Your are correct, there is a requirement for a regular supply of fresh water. The system in question requires about 6-8 KL per day, which I believe most modern vessels have the capacity for. If this is an onshore installation, then the issue goes away.

      I agree with you – I don’t believe any one solution can or should be a panacea. The nanotech solution should be one option of many that ship-owners can choose from.

      Warm regards,

      Shesh.

    2. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      Thank you, Alisdair.

      You are correct. The nanotech solution requires a steady supply of fresh water, about 6-8 KL per day, which I believe most modern vessels have the capacity for. If the installation is on-shore, then there is no issue.

      I agree that no one solution should or can be a universal panacea. The nanotech solution should be one of many options available to ship-owners who can then make an informed choice.

      Warm regards,

      Shesh.

  4. arvind
    August 24, 2018 at 6:16 pm

    Shesh –hope you keep well and good to reconnect –just one question –ok we extract the sulfur on board —possibly extracted as an acid or a solid or semi solid i guess with well proven means —for small ships burning max 50mt a day = 1.5 tons a day across the oceans at say 14knots —between 21 to 30 days passage = 45 to 50mt mt of sulfur –storage and disposal on board ? am leaving out the massive container vessels –they would go at a higher speed and consume maybe 4 times as much = 200mt of sulfur on board – you must have worked out a solution to same –in self opinion this is the crux of the matter and besides the various controls etc which will be required and the absmal state of trsaining of engineers in the tradiotnal hunting grounds of the operators arvind

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 2:03 pm

      Thank you, Arvind, good to hear from you.

      You make a very valid point. One of the ship’s tanks will need to be earmarked for storage of the extracted sulphur, which will then be disposed off periodically. For larger vessels, the storage and disposal will need to be understood and planned carefully.

      The process of management and operation of the system is quite well defined, and appropriate (and continuous) training will be imparted to ship’s staff, in person and digitally.

      Warm regards,

      Shesh.

  5. Sanket
    August 24, 2018 at 8:48 pm

    NAno technology seems to offer the most economical and viable way forward .

    It only now remains to be seen if , the deliverables and execution particularly on board would be feasible

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 2:05 pm

      Thank you, Sanket.

      Absolutely right! The proof of the pudding will be in the eating!

      Warm regards,

      Shesh.

  6. Damini Sheshashayee
    August 24, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    Great article!

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 2:06 pm

      Thank you, Damini!

  7. PeterB
    August 24, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    Great article! But sorry, give the technology a nice name and some logical arguments and everybody believes in it…. Really? Logic, or common sense, tells us that if it would be the! solution, big business would have had already implemented it. This seems not to be the case. Nanotechnology sound for me first dangerous; particles so small that it harms us and our environment. Example: DecaBDE will be forbidden in the EU from 2019 and in aviation from 2027. Put nanotechnology on a ship and you will need to put the ship on your dangerous goods list. Taking sulphur from crude oil is nothing more than chemical engineering. Like I said, if there are techniques available using nanotechnology then this would be a hot item among chemical engineers. Let’s say it like this: A call for nanotechnology for sulphur in shipping has the same status for me as a message from a climate institute on CO2… (did somebody hear the call for more money thru politics???) This in contrary to what the experts say: Being climatologist and the chemical scientists…. Know who you give a voice; let the experts speak ! (and not the call for more money)

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 2:26 pm

      Thank you, Peter.

      As a member of the shipping industry, it is my hope that the nanotech solution will be only one of many approaches, from which ship-owners can choose, to help them deal with the IMO 2020 sulphur cap. I am sure you will agree that different vessels and operational philosophies will need different solutions.

      While I share your concern about small particles possibly affecting the environment, the reality is that nanotech is already present on most ships, in coatings, water/fuel treatment chemicals, flame retardant equipment, aluminum composites, thermal insulation, etc.

      I believe that the nanotech solution will be quite cost-effective when compared to scrubbers or converting vessels to MGO/LSFO.

      Warm regards,

      Shesh.

  8. Grant
    August 25, 2018 at 12:54 am

    Does anyone know what companies he is referring to? I cannot find anything on a US or Chinese nano tech scrubber company

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 2:29 pm

      Good afternoon, Grant.

      I will share more details shortly. Thank you for your patience.

      Warm regards,

      Shesh.

  9. Kaz
    August 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

    i’d like to see a photo of the equipment that employs the nano tech – how big is it? a permanent installation or a skid mounted type thing. talking shore side – i agree you don’t want to try and remove sulfur on board, sulfur being a molecule and molecules have to go somewhere.

    1. Shesh
      August 25, 2018 at 2:30 pm

      Good afternoon, Kaz.

      I will share more details shortly. Thank you for your patience.

      Warm regards,

      Shesh.

  10. chetan
    August 25, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    Dear Shesh, Great article

    1. Shesh
      August 26, 2018 at 10:46 pm

      Thank you, Chetan!

  11. Aakaar
    August 25, 2018 at 10:21 pm

    Very well written and explained the requirement with simple solutions for the Maritime industry

    1. Shesh
      August 26, 2018 at 10:47 pm

      Thank you, Aakaar!

  12. james jeanblanc
    August 25, 2018 at 11:54 pm

    Yes, the process is much better done at a port where an existing tank farm is already in place for fueling vessels rather than on a ship. The largest cost of the new technology is the tank farm thus lowering the cost and saving ship space. One company which has the technology ready after 15 years and $10 million development is Global2Green, (G2G) which is a new joint venture company between GAT-Refining Inc & Green-Framework LLC . See their site http//.greenframework.com for much lower capital cost and operating costs for removing sulfur than the normal 30+ year old hydrogen methods for sulfur removal at refineries.

  13. S.M.Iyer
    August 27, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    Good article Shesh. It is interesting to go through the comments of various stake holders. As you mentioned this is also an alternative to think about. It may not be suitable on certain vessels but may help on many others. You have sowed the seeds in the minds of the ship owners.