By Brian Swartz
Weekly Staff Editor
CASTINE — Maine Maritime Academy faculty and students are conducting research that will help reduce engine emissions and lower fuel costs for commercial shipping.
Around the globe, marine vessels burn different fuels to power their engines. Among these fuels are Bunker C oil and diesel, according to Rich Kimball, MMA associate professor of engineering. When marine engines burn those fuels, pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter are emitted into the air.
A worldwide effort to reduce all pollution related to commercial shipping led to the signing of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships in November 1973.
Under the Convention, the International Maritime Organization has established standards to reduce various pollutants. The standards are being phased in gradually. Currently, the deadlines for reducing the levels of nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and particular matter loom on the horizon.
According to Kimball, ship owners are scrambling to meet the new standards. Possible solutions range from burning low-sulfur fuel to retrofitting an existing ship with a new engine.
Such solutions are expensive. Low-sulfur fuels could cause fuel prices to increase while repowering a ship with a new engine could result in it being more cost-effective to scrap the ship entirely.
Under another proposal, scrubbers could be added to clean a ship’s engine emissions. Kimball described this solution as “more feasible” for large commercial ships and “problematic for work boats,” such as ferries and tugs.
Other solutions could be feasible, as MMA researchers are discovering. The college established the Marine Engine Testing and Emissions Laboratory so researchers — faculty members and students — can “work on marine engine emissions and efficiencies improvements that can be practically implemented into industry,” Kimball said.
The current research efforts at METEL include:
• A project involving thermoelectric heat recovery systems that convert the waste heat in an engine’s exhaust directly into electricity. The school is working with the American Bureau of Shipping and other industrial partners, he said.
• A project involving the development of low-cost, low-emission marine fuels which utilize biofuel waste products.
“The bio[fuels] industry produces tons of waste products, such as glycerin,” Kimball said. “There is a glut of glycerin on the market; it’s viewed as a commodity right now, there is so much of it. It’s low cost, compared to even the lowest grade fuels.”
In collaboration with the Cape Elizabeth-based SeaChange Group, researchers at MMA and the University of Maine are developing and testing low-cost, low-emission marine fuels. Launched as a technology start-up in 2009, the SeaChange Group has focused on developing such fuels; grants from the Maine Technology Institute, the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Energy and industry have funded research efforts.
According to Kimball, a fuel formulated with blended diesel and glycerin shows excellent possibilities. “If blended with diesel fuel in an emulsion, [glycerin] can actually lower the emissions” of nitrogen oxide and particular matter in engine emissions, he said. Because it contains no sulfur, glycerin also lessens the amount of sulfur emissions.
According to Kimball, research has revealed that a diesel-glycerin emulsion also improves the fuel’s lubricity, a factor that reduces engine wear-and-tear.
Research has led the SeaChange Group to develop Eco-Hybrid Fuel, a trademarked product that “we have proved in concept” and “we have tested in engines” at MMA’s Castine campus, Kimball said. “We’re really focused on the development side, testing the fuels.”
MMA students have been widely involved in the research.
“We are a college; we do not have” graduate students to conduct research, Kimball pointed out. “The student component is vital to what we’re doing at Maine Maritime Academy. We’re working on the next generation of fuels for the shipping industry,” he said. “Because of their participation in the research, our students will bring their knowledge about those fuels into the industry as they graduate.”
“We have attracted a lot of students because of the research initiatives we have been involved in,” Kimball said.
Independent laboratories are testing Eco-Hybrid fuels to certify that they “can run in large diesel marine engines,” Kimball said. He expects the fuels to pass all testing and become commercially available in Maine within the next year or so.
“It’s a win-win for the industry,” Kimball said. “We have demonstrated that it significantly lowers the emissions” of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter and also “sulfur dioxide by dilution with the glycerin. It’s a fuel that can work in existing engines,” which could mean that in order to meet the tightened emissions standards, ship owners need not retrofit their vessels with expensive new engines.
Because it includes glycerin, Eco-Hybrid Fuel not only costs less, but is considered a 30-to-40 percent renewable resource fuel making it “lower cost per kilowatt hour than the base diesel” fuel.
The implications for the shipping industry extend worldwide; “this is really an international-scale project,” Kimball said.