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Open-loop scrubbers face China ban

Adding another wrinkle into the 2020 sulphur cap compliance picture, China is contemplating banning open-loop scrubbers from operating in the republic’s waters.

Speaking at a lunch organised by the Hong Kong Shipowners Association (HKSOA) yesterday, Dr Xie Xie, director of the Waterborne Transportation Research Institute at China’s Ministry of Transport, was circumspect about authorities allowing open-loop technology when new, stricter sulphur rules start in China next January, one year ahead of the IMO-mandated global sulphur cap.

Xie was giving a presentation on shipping’s future energy choices from a Chinese perspective. At the questions and answer session at the end of his presentation Xie was asked whether China would allow open-loop scrubber technology as a means of compliance in its ECAs and coastal waters. Initially Xie ducked the question, but when pressed his response was: “I don’t know if China’s Maritime Safety Adminstration will allow it.”

China has had a huge environmental crackdown on many industries in recent years with shipping targeted for stricter and earlier environmental compliance than many other nations.

An open-loop scrubber uses seawater as the medium for cleaning or scrubbing the exhaust. Seawater is normally supplied by a dedicated pump. CO2 dissolves in seawater forming carbonic acid, bicarbonate or carbonate ions depending on the pH. In a closed loop-type scrubber, meanwhile, treated water is circulated through the scrubber to keep the scrubbing process independent of the chemistry of the waters through which the vessel is sailing.

Open-loop scrubbers are currently banned in Belgium, California, Massachusetts and along Germany’s Rhine river.

Reacting to a possible Chinese ban, Don Gregory, a director at the Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems Association (EGCSA), told Splash: “The Chinese decision would be disappointing in that they have not consulted with the right people.”

Gregory said any decision by China to ban open-loop scrubbers would only serve to increase air pollution, and the effect would be negligible on scrubber take-up as less than 2% of global seaborne trade is actually within China’s emission control areas.

Simon Bennett, deputy secretary general at the International Chamber of Shipping, said any China scrubber ban will not directly affect the ability of the industry to comply with the global sulphur cap due in just over 15 months.

“The reality is that the vast majority of ships will comply on January 1 2020 using fuel with a sulphur content of 0.5% or less, with only a relatively small number of ships, probably less than 2,000, are expected to be fitted with exhaust gas cleaning systems by 2020 – and they still be able to switch to low sulphur fuels should this be required in certain waters,” Bennett told Splash.

Bennett added, however, that any further bans around the world might make owners think twice about adopting scrubbers.

“Those other owners who are contemplating whether to fit scrubbers after 2020 – once they are clearer about the future cost of low sulphur fuels when demand for them increases – will be watching this and any similar developments closely,” the ICS executive said.

Also of note during Xie’s speech yesterday at the HKSOA, the government official said China views LNG as only a transitional fuel for shipping and Beijing anticipates electric vessels to be the future for the industry.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. Not sure I understand how a ban on open-loop scrubbers would increase air pollution. Seems to me the ban would force ships operating in Chinese waters to adopt either closed-loop systems or burn fuel w/ less than 0.5% sulphur, neither of which would increase air pollution, and both would be less of a detriment to the marine ecosystem.

  2. Hmm, a SOx scrubber “disolving CO2” – interesting journalistic angle or just fake news? Don’t cut corners on the chemistry – if it was so simple we did not need the Paris Agreement.

  3. Kate — taken from the recently published guide to scrubbers from US class society ABS — check pages 19 – 21 of their July 2018 published advisory of exhaust gas scrubber systems

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