In Focus: Sustainable liquid marine fuels and the data-driven transition

In the quest for a greener maritime future, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and a variety of technologies must be considered to continue reducing carbon emissions from recreational boats, writes ICOMIA’s CEO Joe Lynch (right), technical consultant Patrick Hemp (left) and NMMA’s director of environment, health and safety compliance, Jeff Wasil (centre).

Findings from new research from ICOMIA and Ricardo plc outline a portfolio of propulsion technologies best positioned to drive decarbonisation, with sustainable liquid marine fuels emerging as the most suitable source of energy to decarbonise recreational boats by 2035. With approximately 30 million recreational boats navigating global waters, the drive to encourage the use of sustainable fuels has never been more pressing.

The transition to sustainable liquid marine fuels is not a distant dream. It’s happening now.

In Italy, Confindustria Nautica‘s collaboration with ENI to boost energy transition and decarbonisation in maritime transport sets a notable precedent and the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) in the US has put together a Sustainable Marine Fuels Taskforce showcasing a commitment to a cleaner, greener maritime future.

The taskforce has been able to identify three sustainable marine fuels that are now available in the United States:

  • Renewable Diesel (HVO) manufactured by Neste using waste cooking oils and waste feedstocks.
  • Biobutanol, distributed by Hyperfuels and produced using Gevo butanol.
  • EcoGen, a partially renewable gasoline distributed by VP Racing Fuels and produced by LyondellBasell.

These fuels will reduce CO2 emissions from recreational boats and are compatible with the 12 million registered powerboats in the United States. These are what we refer to as renewable drop-in fuels, meaning you do not have to make any changes to the engine or fuel system on the boat. The fuel can simply be added to the tank in the boat. This is what makes these fuels so exciting, there is no need to change the boat or engine. Using these fuels in the recreational fleet will make an immediate difference in our ability to minimise CO2 emissions.

As an industry, our focus must shift towards key areas that drive this transition. The first step involves adapting fuel supply methods at marinas, a change that can be seamlessly implemented with minimal infrastructure adjustments, such as additional tanks and supply lines.

The responsibility now lies with marinas and boat service providers to grasp the opportunity sustainable fuels present and advocate for their adoption among users. Once consumers understand this, market forces will drive this to happen quickly.

To make a substantial impact, consumers will need to understand the benefits of renewable drop-in fuels. Campaigns for effective delivery and availability of these fuelling options should be championed by industry stakeholders (all marina operators, boat owners, engine manufacturers, boat builders – everyone in the industry), ensuring that the right tax and regulatory bodies are engaged and supportive.

Implications for boat builders (under 24 metres)

The good news for boat builders under 24 meters is the adoption of sustainable liquid marine fuels presents minimal impact. Compatible with 99 per cent of today’s marine engines, these fuels offer reassurance and predictability for future consumer demands. This, in turn, provides a platform for boat builders to invest in innovation and design with a focus on long-term sustainability.

However, boat builders must now pivot their attention to sustainability credentials. Collaborating closely with engine suppliers and fuel system component manufacturers, they need to assess sustainable practices throughout the entire lifecycle of their boats, from production to responsible disposal.

Consumers will increasingly seek clarification around sustainability. Boat builders need to navigate the challenge of rising costs associated with sustainable fuels, a shift that demands clear communication with consumers.

The key lies in educating boat owners about the advances in technology.

Previous concerns about clogging filters and bacterial growth have been addressed, making these renewable drop-in fuels a viable and effective option for boaters.

ICOMIA’s role

ICOMIA‘s commitment extends beyond research and innovation. With a focus on consumers, presentations at industry events and boat shows are aimed at both stakeholders and end users. The dissemination of the latest decarbonisation research outcomes to high-level organisations, such as the EU Commission, and local authorities ensures that policy decisions are informed by a comprehensive understanding of available technologies and their impact.

The research provides a roadmap for owners, demonstrating that reducing carbon output is not just an aspiration—it’s achievable for the majority of the fleet.

Making the switch to sustainable marine fuels entails minimal compromise on performance, maintaining expected ranges and power values.

However, owners must be aware of increased fuel costs (5-40 per cent) during the transition period, where availability might not be guaranteed until demand reaches a certain level.

While sustainable marine fuels are becoming more readily available, there’s recognition that more work needs to be done. Initiatives must drive both supply and demand, involving consumers, fuel creators, distributors, and marine service providers. Production must align with sustainable practices, ensuring a holistic approach to environmental responsibility.

ICOMIA acknowledges challenges in the delivery and supply of alternative fuels, with marina group members actively engaged in addressing these hurdles. While on-site renewable energy storage holds promise for reducing environmental impact, upfront investment costs pose challenges. The data-led approach has been warmly received by electric propulsion manufacturers for occasional use boats, emphasising the importance of diverse solutions tailored to unique user needs.

In conclusion, the voyage toward a sustainable maritime future is well underway. With practical steps, education, and collaboration, the industry can chart a course toward reduced carbon emissions, ensuring that our waters remain a treasure for generations to come.

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