Nanotechnology questions answered

A couple of weeks ago Splash published my article titled, ‘Nanotechnology can cure shipping’s sulphur conundrum’.

Since then, we have seen the following headlines –

‘Maersk anticipates extra $2 billion to its fuel bill come 2020’ discussing Maersk’s discomfort with scrubbers and their concern about the tight availability of compliant fuels.

‘Scrubber – an incomplete solution’ revealing how a fleet of cruise vessels fitted with scrubbers have been releasing soot, unburnt oil and metals into the sea.

‘Scrubber retrofits see repair yards hike prices’ disclosing how shipyards are hiking their prices to retrofit scrubbers.

Since then, we have received more than 135 messages asking about the nano-fuel solution, packed with questions on the technology and its approach. Splash suggested a follow-on article so that we could respond to these queries and assuage the widespread curiosity and interest.

Before we start discussing nano-fuel, let us understand fuel oil better.

Fuel oil is made of long hydrocarbon chains. It is the heaviest commercial fuel that can be obtained from crude oil, literally the bottom of the barrel; in oil distilling, the only things more dense than fuel oil are carbon black feedstock and bituminous residue (asphalt), which is used for paving roads and sealing roofs.

Fuel oil is less used than diesel or petrol, globally, because it is so viscous that it has to be heated with a special heating system before use and it contains relatively high amounts of pollutants, including sulphur. However, its undesirable properties make it very cheap. In fact, it is the cheapest liquid fuel available.

Fuel oil’s main disadvantages (other than the high viscosity) are –

– Contaminants (water, dirt, wax, aluminium, silicon, etc.)

– High sulphur content

– Does not burn completely

– Leaves residue

Now, nano-fuel is designed to specifically address these shortfalls. Nano-fuel is a ‘refined’ fuel oil produced through the process of combining fuel oil, water and nano-additives to deliver a superior, stable, refined fuel oil, whose characteristics are similar to the base fuel oil, but which is

– Cleaner, with reduced contamination

– Low sulphur content (less than 0.5%)

– Combusts completely, with improved efficiency, thus delivering up to 5% more calorific value than fuel oil

– Leaves negligible residue in the engines, resulting in cleaner combustion chambers, thus extending their health and life

– Reduced carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emission

– Reduction in polluting particulate matter such as black smoke and soot

While there may be more than one approach to nano-fuel, the process I have become familiar with has been invented and patented in Japan, and has been in use in on-shore installations for quite some time. An outcome of more than 10 years of research, the process involves the ‘refining’ of fuel oil molecules with a nano-additive solution to form an enhanced oxygenated hydrocarbon molecule, whilst extracting the sulphur from the base fuel oil. The processing unit consists of a nano solution production module, pre-mixing modules, mixing modules and a control panel, compactly arranged in a 40 foot container. The operation of the processing unit is streamlined and can be managed by one operator (with PLC control) or remotely through automatic control.

Nano-fuel is cutting edge technology. It solves the sulphur problem at the source, so there is no possibility of non-compliance due to equipment inefficiency or failure at the exhaust end. The installation of the processing unit is quick (less than seven days) and easy. Nano-fuel is cost effective. The cost of the processing unit is less than half of that of a scrubber. It’s economic life is more than 10 years. The actual per unit cost of nano-fuel is only marginally higher than fuel oil, after taking into account the enhanced calorific value and all costs, capex and opex.

The extracted sulphur is in the form of a slurry that can be neutralised, filtered and disposed off overboard or on-shore in full compliance with all regulations. Unlike scrubber effluents, the disposal contains no soot, heavy-metals, ash or unburned carbon. The slurry and its processing will need storage and mixing before disposal.

The nano-fuel processing unit can be installed on-shore or onboard. It can be owned and operated by shipowners, bunker traders, shipyards, supply bases, ports and oil companies.

The nano-fuel processing unit, if installed onboard, will require about 6-8 KL of fresh water per day and about 60 KW of power off-take, both requirements well within the current capacity of most modern vessels.

The nano-fuel unit can process different grades of fuel oil, separately or blended.

This answers most of the queries that I received.

In addition, I received some concerned questions about nano-technology –

– One, the possibility of nano-particles escaping and causing harm. Could this concern be real? Possible, but unlikely. Nanotechnology is already around us everywhere. Everyone of us, knowingly or not, encounters nanotechnology every day – in coatings, in medicines, in metal-forms, in insulation, in plastics, in lubricating oils and even in commercial petrol and diesel.

– Two, if nanotechnology was such an effective solution, why hasn’t it already been used? It has, and quite widely, but mostly on-shore. Nanotechnology has long been used in several petroleum refining processes, including catalytic cracking, dehydrogenation of alkanes, and desulphurisation. Unfortunately for shipping, till the IMO 2020 regulation came into effect, there was no requirement or motivation for our industry to look for an alternate to traditional fuel oil.

– Three, that this nanotechnological solution should not be seen as a panacea. I agree. No one solution should be a panacea. Shipowners should have multiple options to choose from, and make these choices based on the factors that they deem important and their own analyses of the alternate options to address these factors.

– Four, is nanotechnology a “call for more money”? Not at all. Nano-fuel is much more cost-effective than installing scrubbers or purchasing low sulphur fuel or MGO. Nano-fuel’s processing unit is less than half the cost of a scrubber and much easier to install and operate. In fact, it can be emphatically said that nano-fuel will save clients money, time, effort and grief.

One caveat, I am not an expert in nanotechnology or in fuels. What I am is an avid learner and seeker of knowledge. I am a huge advocate of doing things differently and doing different things, and using technology in both approaches. Finally, I am a big believer in the tremendous value of optionalities.

Nano-fuel presents an additional option for shipowners and operators to consider and evaluate alongside the others (scrubbers and low sulphur fuels) and decide the most optimal way forward.

If I may conclude with the same points in the previous article – we, the maritime industry, need 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 safe passage.

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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