Rio Tinto and bp partner on sustainable biofuels trial

Under the one-year trial, bp will supply Rio Tinto with marine biofuel on its RTM Tasman vessel operating on a mix of Transatlantic and Atlantic routes

Rio Tinto and bp are collaborating on a one-year biofuel trial to help reduce carbon emissions from the mining giant's marine fleet.

Under the trial, bp is supplying Rio Tinto with marine biofuel which will be trialled on Rio Tinto’s RTM Tasman vessel on a mix of Transatlantic and Atlantic-Pacific routes, in one of the longest-duration marine biofuel trials to date.

The results of the trial will help Rio Tinto study ways to reduce its carbon emissions from its marine fleet and inform its future biofuel strategy.

Rio Tinto Head of Commercial Operations Laure Baratgin said sustainable biofuels have the potential to be an important transition fuel on the way to net-zero marine emissions.

“A longer-duration trial will provide important information on the potential role and wide scale use of biofuels, and aligns with our goals to reduce marine emissions across our value chain and support efforts to decarbonise the maritime industry," he said. 

“Our ambition is to reach net-zero emissions from shipping of our products to customers by 2050 and to introduce net-zero carbon vessels into our portfolio by 2030. We know that we won’t meet these ambitions alone."

Sven Boss-Walker, senior vice president refining & products trading, bp said sustainable biofuels are important to help decarbonise the shipping industry in the near- and mid-term as we transition towards longer term net zero solutions.

"These trials are part of our ongoing efforts to help accelerate the shipping industry’s energy transition," he said. 

The extended trial agreement follows a successful journey on the RTM Tasman after it refuelled with biofuel in Rotterdam in March 2022 for the first time and then picked up its first load of the trial at the Iron Ore Company of Canada’s Sept-Îles port in Quebec in April. All biofuel refuelling during the trial will be at Rotterdam.

The trial is using a bp-manufactured B30 biofuel blend composed of 30% fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) blended with very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO). This B30 biofuel blend can reduce lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions by up to 26% compared to standard marine fuel oil.

FAME is a renewable alternative fuel (biodiesel) largely produced from recycled cooking oils and renewable oil sources. It has physical properties similar to conventional diesel, and is a ‘drop in fuel’, requiring no modifications to the engine or vessel.

The origination and production of the feedstocks used to produce the FAME is certified for its sustainability to internationally recognised standards.

Working with bp and the ship managers Anglo Eastern, the trial will analyse a series of engine and fuel performance factors, including engine efficiency and fuel consumption, corrosion and degradation, microbial growth, temperature impact, fuel switching impacts and fuel stability.

Rio Tinto is also accelerating the delivery of its climate commitments on shipping. It has delivered a 30% intensity reduction on its owned and time-chartered fleet from a 2008 baseline, and is on track to meet the International Maritime Organisation’s 2030 targets of a 40% reduction in emissions five years early, by 2025.

bp, which like Rio Tinto, is aiming to be net zero by 2050, is working with companies in key industrial sectors such as shipping, that have significant carbon emissions to manage.

The global limit on sulfur content for all marine fuels is being lowered dramatically, sending shock waves through global refined-product markets while widening margins and differentials. 

However technical and logistic issues need to be resolved before biofuels can be introduced at a larger scale in the shipping sector, and a closer collaboration between biofuel producers, engine developers and ship owners is recommended as a path forward, notes an IEA Bioenergy report.

Types of biofuels

There are a variety of different biofuels currently used to satisfy renewable fuels mandates, the most common are:

  • Bioethanol - ethanol produced from agricultural sugars or starch (from corn, sugarcane, beets or wheat) through a fermentation process.  Also small amounts produced from cellulosic feedstocks
  • Biodiesel (FAME) - diesel blendstock produced from vegetable oils or animal fats using a transesterification process.  Yields a diesel blendstock that can be blended in low volumes (typically 5%), limited by cold flow properties
  • Renewable diesel - high-quality diesel blendstock produced from hydroprocessing of vegetable oils or animal fats
  • Bio-ETBE - an ether produced from bioethanol and isobutylene used as a renewable gasoline blendstock, especially in Europe
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