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Danish researchers to develop plant-fuelled ships

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Danish researchers to develop plant-fuelled ships
Could cruise ships soon be running on fuel made from plants? Photo: Hans Christian Haaland/Flickr
09:07 CEST+02:00
Researchers at Danish companies and universities are set to announce the development of a new technique that will allow plants to be used as fuel in ship engines.
The project Biomass in the 21st Century aims to develop biomass fuels that can replace the energy given off by burning fossil fuels.
 
"The great thing about the engine of a ship is that it can eat almost anything," Claus Felby of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, told videnskab.dk.
 
Felby is leading the project, which can boast of a number of big Danish industries - including Mærsk, Novozymes and Dong Energy - amongst its participants. 
 
Four years after the project started, scientists from the University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Denmark are close to patenting a new chemical that can transform lignin, an organic molecule that is prevalent in plants and algae, into diesel oil.
 
This means that, should the technology be developed to a high level of efficiency, the diesel engines of ships could be fuelled by biomass.
 
Felby told videnskab.dk that the trick to success with the method is in ensuring the heated biomass turns into oil rather than coal.
 
This is done by using ethanol to prevent the heated lignin making the wrong kind of chemical bonds - but a certain temperature is also necessary to prevent the ethanol becoming inactive. 
 
"Fundamentally we can say it's all about mixing this stuff together and heating it in the right way so that oil comes out," said Felby.
 
The geoscientist expects the patent for the new method to be registered in around two months' time.
 
With fossil fuel oil expected to run out globally at some point during the next 75 years and political support for reducing CO2 emissions increasing, companies such as Mærsk are investing more and more in projects such as those led by Felby, reports Jyllands-Posten.
 
But concerns have been raised about the investment in biomass research, with wind and sun power considered greener options.
 
"When a forest is cut down, higher CO2 emissions that typically last a number of decades," Jørgen Eivind Olesen, professor at Aarhus University's department of Agroecology, told videnskab.dk.
 
Another problem includes the purchase of wood for fuel from abroad, with guidelines for replanting forests not necessarily held to the same standards as those in Denmark.
 
But vegetable-powered cruise ships are still some way off yet, Felby told videnskab.dk.
 
"We can do it in the laboratory at the moment, but the problem is the scale, because we need around 2,000 tons of fuel to be able to test it in the enormous ship engines. And that costs a fortune," said Felby.
 
But vegetable-powered cruise ships are still some way off yet, Felby told videnskab.dk.
 
"We can do it in the laboratory at the moment, but the problem is the scale, because we need around 2,000 tons of fuel to be able to test it in the enormous ship engines. And that costs a fortune," said Felby.
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