Making Waves

Environmental stewardship doesn't stop at the shoreline. Protecting the world's fragile marine ecosystems is the responsibility of all mariners. From California to Thailand, the air and water are just a little bit clearer where biodiesel blends are used.
By Dave Nilles | July 01, 2004
the concept of using biodiesel as a marine engine fuel is nearly as old as the diesel engine itself. Rudolph Diesel was attempting to convince the English and French navies to use his vegetable-powered engines in their submarines before his death in 1913.

Today biodiesel use in a marine environment differs little from other uses. The fuel offers few drawbacks and many positives. Despite working near or on water, no engine modifications are required other than cleaning older fuel tanks and replacing some fuel lines. The solvent action of biodiesel may damage the natural rubber and butyl fuel lines in some older engines.

The potential for biodiesel use in the marine environment is relatively untapped. The marine industry accounts for roughly 10 percent of the U.S. petroleum diesel fuel consumption market. According to the National Biodiesel Board, recreational boats consume about 95 million gallons of diesel fuel annually. In many cases of marine engine applications, biodiesel is just being introduced.

It's beginning to catch on in a large part due to its environmental impact, or lack thereof. Reduced exhaust emissions and less potential for marine contamination are catching the eye of many boaters. B20 biodegrades twice as fast as 100 percent petroleum diesel. Pure biodiesel degrades between 85 percent and 88 percent in water within 28 days. This is a positive aspect if spills occur in a marine environment. However, it can cause problems in long-term storage of the fuel.

That is one of the issues concerning the United States Coast Guard (USCG). The USCG is poised to become the first service branch to use biodiesel in a marine environment. The Office of Naval Engineering's Environmental Division, the Engineering Logistics Center, Coast Guard Academy and the Naval Air Systems Command are working to develop a standard for the use of biodiesel in USCG engines. The project focuses on supply and warranty issues with current USCG engines.

"We're always researching for alternative fuels that benefit the Coast Guard and the environment," Lieutenant Junior Grade Andy Goshorn said.

Ongoing tests using B20 are addressing the concerns of storage stability, gasket interactions and bio growth, according to Goshorn. Biodiesel would likely be used only in certain situations taking into consideration the limitations of the fuel.
For most other marine users of biodiesel, stability isn't the biggest concern. Distributors of the fuel have been more difficult to find.

Finding the fuel
Captain Steph Dutton of Sanctuary Cruises in Monterey Bay, Calif., has run two whale-watching vessels year-round on biodiesel for two years.

Sanctuary Cruises was the first group on the central California coast to use biodiesel in its charter boats.
Dutton initially paid $3.25 per gallon for biodiesel while conventional diesel was around $1.30 per gallon at the time. With easier access to the fuel he now pays about $2.25 per gallon for the 10,000 gallons of biodiesel used annually. Dutton said he would rather have the fuel cheaper, but he is willing to pay the price since his local distributor provides a reliable supply.

To offset the price difference Sanctuary Cruises adds a $2 fuel surcharge per person. Dutton said it hasn't been met with much resistance since many passengers are already ecologically minded.

"[Biodiesel] didn't start out as a business decision, it was an ecological decision," Dutton said. "It's turned into a reasonable business decision."

Sanctuary Cruises has faced few problems since making the switch. "There is always algae growth in marine applications and the fuel tends to knock that free," Dutton said. Other than a few plugged fuel filters Dutton said there has been no change in performance or efficiency. In fact a positive side effect has been a significant drop in seasickness rates due to the improved smell. "It either has no smell or it smells like baking bread," Dutton said.

Another ocean-minded group that overcame the lack of local biodiesel is Channel Islands National Park near Ventura, Calif. Originally using B100 derived from used vegetable oils, the park now uses a wide array of biodiesel blends. Two distributors have started selling biodiesel in the local marina since Channel Islands switched to the fuel.

The first run with the new fuel provided a scare. Maintenance Supervisor Kent Bullard received a radio call that the boat's engine died about 30 miles offshore near Santa Barbara. As it turned out, the problem was related to a sea strainer plugged with kelp. "It wasn't anything different then what has happened occassionally with conventional diesel engines," Bullard said. "The engine just overheated and died."
Other ocean tour groups have since jumped onboard. The Pacific Whale Foundation's Eco-Adventures Group based in Kihei, Hawaii, first started using biodiesel in 2000. Earlier this year, Western Prince Whale Watching and Wildlife Tours became one of the first whale watching groups on San Juan Island to use B20 biodiesel. Maui Scuba Tours uses biodiesel in its boats and Splash Tours in San Francisco run its amphibious tour fleet on the fuel.

Ferries begin making the switch
Washington State Ferries (WSF) is testing biodiesel in Puget Sound as part of its Clean Fuel Initiatives package expected to reduce total use of diesel and reduce emissions. WSF is the largest ferry fleet in the United States running 25 ferries and carrying over 26 million passengers annually. A May announcement said WSF is converting its entire ferry fleet to low-sulfur diesel in preparation for the 2010 EPA ruling limiting pollution from non-road engines. The Clean Air Nonroad Diesel Rule and the Clean Water Act are considered regulatory drivers motivating the use of biodiesel.

WSF is conducting a yearlong pilot project testing B20 in three vessels. The ferries are expected to burn 1.5 million gallons of fuel during the test. The test, which began in late July, is expected to decrease emissions of carbon dioxide by 2,793 tons, sulfur dioxide by 1 ton and particulate matter by 1 ton. WSF is also working to conserve diesel usage. The ferries consumed more than 18 million gallons of fuel last year.

Other ferries have already tested biodiesel. A commuter ferry in San Francisco Bay was the first operating ferry to begin using biodiesel in 2001. Kentucky's Mammoth Caves National Park began using biodiesel in two passenger ferries in 2002.
Niche markets

Biodiesel is finding its way into even smaller niche marine markets. Waterway Constructions started using biodiesel about two years ago. The Australian company is one of the largest specialist maritime contractors in New South Wales. The company builds and maintains wharves, bridges and other marine structures. Much of its work is on Sydney Harbor in Australia. With the risk of spillage so high, Waterway Construction wanted to minimize environmental risk exposure. It started using biodiesel in a couple of small welders and compressors, and now use it in about 30 diesel engines including large floating cranes and piling rigs.

The Naval Dockyard of Thailand took part in a nine-month biodiesel feasibility study last year studying the commercial use of the fuel. Tests were done on B10 and B100.

Another niche market for biodiesel use is in recreational sailboats. Sailboats consume about 4 million gallons of diesel fuel per year in the United States. They are considered good potential users because they use a low volume of fuel and a lack of smoke increases the boating pleasure. Early surveys associated with biodiesel promotions showed that boaters' main reasons for using biodiesel were the improved smell and environmental benefits.

The future of marine biodiesel use
Marine biodiesel use is increasing. With more and more fuel distributors carrying the fuel along the coasts and the Great Lakes, consumers are beginning to make the switch. With a move toward the water, even the feedstock for biodiesel is evolving.

This year Maui-based Pacific Biodiesel created biodiesel out of refined fish oil. The project, funded in part by the U.S. DOE, used some of the 3.5 million gallons of fish-oil byproduct created annually by the Alaskan fish processing industry and created biodiesel. Fish oil has also been tested in stationary diesel generators in Alaska. Fish oil requires minimal processing to produce biodiesel at a cost of only about 25 cents per gallon. With such a fuel source, it's possible marine biodiesel engines may one day be fueled from products in the water they ride upon.
 
 
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