USC Researchers Working to Make Shipping Industry Greener

By MarEx 2012-10-22 09:53:17

With Hong Kong’s Tai Chong Cheang Steamship Co., USC engineers are leading the charge to make marine Diesel engines cleaner and more efficient

Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering are collaborating with Hong Kong’s Tai Chong Cheang (TCC) Group to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by the marine Diesel engines currently powering the world’s merchant shipping fleets.

This unprecedented research effort was galvanized by TCC Group Chairman Kenneth Koo after the impasse of the Copenhagen World Climate Summit in 2009 and the incremental International Marine Organization’s 2010 environmental mandate. Witnessing engine makers’ hesitancy to rethink the fundamentals of marine Diesel efficiency, Koo, whose company owns and operates dry bulk carriers and oil tankers around the world, felt a call to action.

A multi-year research partnership between the TCC Group and USC Viterbi, the first ever university research on Marine Diesel engines, was launched in May 2010. Principal Investigators Professors Fokion Egolfopoulos and Martin Gundersen, and Research Associate Dan Singleton, are developing technology that improves the combustion efficiency in marine Diesel engines, thereby decreasing the harmful pollutants created, meeting strict environmental regulations, and cutting fuel costs.

Maritime shipping accounts for a significant portion of the world’s greenhouse gases. Maritime emissions from the tens of thousands of large bore engine-powered ships currently trading globally are considerable, as they are propelled by slow speed, low energy-efficient marine diesel engines, consuming low grade fuel oil, of which over 250 million tons was consumed last year.

The research partnership was characterized by USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos as “pioneering in scope as it addresses a vastly overlooked area of environmental emissions, and it holds promise to lead to innovative solutions for increasing marine diesel engine efficiencies”.

In an effort to provide sustainable energy efficient solutions, Egolfopoulos, Gundersen and Singleton are using transient plasma ignition (or TPI, a high-voltage electrical pulse applied over nanoseconds) to improve the ignition and combustion process in marine Diesel engines.

Where bunker fuel burns at 35 to 40 percent efficiency in marine Diesel engine cylinders, the group has found that applying TPI helps the fuel to burn more completely, a result that when applied to full-scale marine Diesel engines would drive down both harmful emissions and the amount of fuel used per day at sea. Even an increase of just a few percent in combustion efficiency will translate into significant savings for ship owners and can help keep shipping affordable and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The team’s comprehensive combustion study of bunker fuels using TPI have shown ignition at room temperature, indicating that the formation of plasma actually breaks the chemical bonds in these very heavy fuels, helping them to burn better. Data from a lab-scale single cylinder engine also suggests that TPI causes hydrocarbon-based fuels to burn cleaner and more completely. A number of additional challenges have also been solved by the research group, including the design of electrodes and the optimum nano-pulsed sequence for marine Diesel engines.

“We really need to get transient plasma ignition technology to the world’s merchant fleets as fast as possible,” said Koo. “The survival of trans-oceanic shipping that enables the global exchange of goods and raw materials depends upon it, and as a social responsibility, we need to also do our part to minimize the impact of shipping on the environment.”

“USC’s is the only serious effort that is actually working on the problem to make the fuel burn better,” said Captain Vinay Patwardhan, TCC’s director of Group Operations Development and General Manager, Tanker Fleet Operations. “If they succeed, we will all win by helping keep ocean shipping affordable, using less fuel per voyage to generate similar power output as now, producing less greenhouse gases and significantly reducing harmful pollutants.”

Progress on the research has been reported to the world shipping industry several times since it began, at an October 2010 Hong Kong Ship-Owners’ Association seminar, the California Maritime Academy in November 2011 and the China Maritime Hong Kong in March 2012.

Research is currently entering a crucial third phase during which the team will investigate how the technology can be successfully adopted in full-size marine Diesel engines with minimal invasive modifications. If successful, this innovative approach could offer a potentially low-cost lightweight technology that could be back-fitted onto existing engines and also profoundly influence future design of more efficient engines. The development of such technology holds promise to benefit the reduction of environmentally toxic emissions.