Low-carbon fuel trials on NERC research vessels

Credit: National Oceanography Centre, UK

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) are undertaking low-carbon fuel trials on NERC research vessels in 2023.

The trials, which started this summer, will explore the potential of using sustainably sourced hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) as an interim approach to achieving reductions in carbon emissions, without impacting on scientific capability.

The trials are part of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) ambition to reach ‘net zero’ operational carbon emissions by 2040, in line with UK Research and Innovation’s environmental sustainability strategy.

Marine decarbonisation

NERC’s research ships account for over 70% of NERC’s carbon footprint in 2022 to 2023. Therefore, these fuel trials form an important part of a wider collaboration between NERC, BAS and NOC focused on long-term decarbonisation of our marine facilities.

Other actions include investigating options to upgrade ship propulsion systems to increase efficiency and modifying infrastructure to facilitate renewable shore power supplies.

Investment is also being made in technology to improve ship route planning as well as tools to embed carbon considerations into marine planning and decision-making processes.

Additionally, this collaboration will support ongoing work by the Future Marine Research Infrastructure programme and the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme to drive innovation which delivers marine and polar research in low carbon ways.

HVO fuel trials

The 2023 trials aim to assess the technical compatibility of HVO with the ship engines and evaluate the performance and efficiency of the ships using HVO compared to marine gas oil.

HVO is a relatively new alternative fuel, and although several marine transport and logistic companies have trialled its use, its performance in ship engines needs to be better understood.

Key challenges

As part of the trials’ activities, NERC is carefully considering key challenges around sustainability and availability of HVO, as well as the cost, logistical and emissions implications of using this alternative fuel source.

HVO is considered a biofuel and can be produced from a range of feedstocks. However, it is only sustainable if produced from waste-derived materials rather than from crops grown specifically for fuels.

As environment-focused scientific organisations it is important to NERC, NOC and BAS that there are not unintended environmental consequences of switching to an alternative fuel source.

NERC is actively working with potential suppliers of HVO and independent regulatory bodies, such as the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification initiative. We are developing robust assurance processes, which exceed recognised global standards, for procuring HVO from sustainable sources.

NERC Carbon Pathway

These fuel trials along with the wider marine decarbonisation activities form part of NERC’s Carbon Pathway, which underpins efforts to meet ‘net zero’ operational carbon emissions by 2040.

NERC has recently become the first public sector organisation to achieve the ‘taking action’ tier of the Carbon Trust’s ‘Route to Net Zero Standard’.

This certification demonstrates NERC’s commitment to lead the way on meeting net zero targets well ahead of the UK government deadline.

What happens next?

Following the trials, NERC will consider whether HVO should be adopted for wider ship operations moving forwards, continually reviewing emerging evidence relating to HVO, its supply chains and market fluctuations.

In addition, outputs from the trials will be shared with other trusted marine partners and regulators to support the wider shipping industry on its journey to net zero.

NERC, BAS and NOC will also continue to explore other technologies that can help to deliver marine decarbonisation, as well as engaging with the wider shipping industry as it develops alternative future fuels.

Find out more by contacting: responsibility@nerc.ukri.org

Last updated: 5 September 2023

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