Japanese transport giants to develop world’s first wood pellets-powered ship

The technology could decarbonize the shipping of biomass pellets to Japan, potentially reducing carbon emissions by 22 percent.

A group of companies is set to develop the world’s first biomass-fuelled ship (bioship) and the technology to power it, aiding in the advancement of sustainable transportation initiatives. Japanese transportation firms NYK Line (NYK), NYK Bulk & Projects Carriers (NBP), and Tsuneishi Shipbuilding have teamed up with British renewable energy business Drax Group (Drax) for the project. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the firms aims to develop a bioship by the decade’s end.

As a result of the agreement, businesses will study how to create the new transportation technology—an onboard biomass fuel plant—that is needed to power a bioship. The four companies will also investigate ways to lower the fuel costs and emissions associated with shipping biomass by utilizing additional renewable technology.

Sustainable biomass shipping
The agreement follows a paradigm shift in Japan towards more greener energy sources. Japan is shifting from producing electricity from fossil fuels to low-carbon and renewable sources, and the country’s need for biomass pellets—mostly made from sawmill and forestry residues—is expanding. These pellets are obtained mostly from North America.

Drax makes biomass pellets in Canada and the South of the United States. The company has been shipping its pellets to Japan through NBP for a long time. According to the company, a crucial step toward achieving net zero is using biomass, which is a low-carbon, renewable energy option from sustainable sources. Sustainable biomass can greatly aid the maintenance of forest health. Well-managed forests can effectively collect and store atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Drax aims to be carbon-negative by 2030, and decarbonizing its supply chain is critical to achieving this goal.

The smaller handysize bulkers currently transport these pellets worldwide have limited fuel tanks, making it difficult to convert to fuels with reduced emissions, such as ammonia. This is where the collaboration aims to develop new shipping technology: an onboard biomass fuel plant needed to power a bioship.

“This MoU is an important step in the development of the technology required to power and launch the world’s first bioship, which will support Drax’s decarbonization goals but could also drive the innovation needed to transform shipping and cut carbon emissions and fuel costs in global supply chains,” said Paul Sheffield, Drax Group’s Chief Commercial Officer, in a statement.

Bioship development begins
The biomass fuel plant would utilize a gasifier to combust biomass at high temperatures, producing gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and methane. These gases would then be used to power a generator, which could both propel the bioship and supply a portion of its internal power. The generator powered by these gases would subsequently propel the bioship and supply some of its internal power.

The companies claim that installing a biomass fuel plant might decrease well-to-wake carbon emissions in bioships by 22 percent compared to using fossil fuels.

After studying biomass fuel plants and gasifier systems, the companies have decided to proceed with a feasibility study for the development of the world’s first wood pellet-powered super low-emission vessel.

If this project is successful, the businesses will collaborate to construct a bioship by the end of 2029.

“This is important step towards decarbonised society for all concerned parties. NBP will continue to contribute to global decarbonisation together with its customers and partners,” said Masashi Suda, president of NBP, in a statement.