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The CSL Welland beside the CSL Baie Comeau in Montreal, on Feb. 5.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

When the lights in the ship’s galley didn’t flicker, CSL Group’s Louis Martel knew he was on to something.

The Atlantic Huron’s power generator, which fed electricity to the cabins, unloading machinery and other auxiliary functions on the Great Lakes freighter, was running on a blend of marine diesel and biofuel made from soybeans. The successful test was the first step in what is believed to be the world’s largest trial of powering massive cargo ships with biodiesel.

Canada Steamship Lines, the domestic arm of CSL, expanded the trial over the past few years, gradually increasing the fuel mix to 100-per-cent soybean-derived diesel and running eight of its 16 ships on the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes in 2021. The fuel swap reduced carbon emissions at each ship’s smokestack by almost 12 per cent without requiring any modifications to the engine. There were no failures, and repeated mechanical teardowns and inspections showed no excessive wear.

“Reducing our environmental footprint has been an objective of the company for many years,” said Mr. Martel, chief executive officer of the Montreal-based shipping company. “It showed that we can operate our fleet with biodiesel as a drop-in fuel, we don’t have to modify any piece of our engine or equipment.”

In the search for less carbon-intensive fuels, the transportation industry is exploring wider uses of electric batteries, hydrogen and ammonia to power ships, planes, cars, trains and trucks. Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. has converted one locomotive to run on hydrogen and is working on two more, with financial aid from the province of Alberta. Several global ship operators are developing vessels powered by ammonia. Plane makers are working with electric- and hydrogen-powered propulsion.

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Louis Martel, CEO of Canada Steamship Lines, on the bridge of the CSL Welland, on Feb. 5.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

However, most of these innovations are years from being commercially viable, and require big investments in engines and fuel storage and other infrastructure. Ammonia, most hydrogen and often electricity require the production of petroleum, undercutting their emissions-free claims.

Eric Galbraith, a professor in McGill University’s department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, said it is “absolutely essential” the shipping industry moves away from fossil fuels, which are the main cause of climate change.

Maritime transport, which moves 90 per cent of the world’s goods, emits 2.5 per cent of greenhouse gases, or 940 million tonnes a year, according to the European Commission.

“Transportation, of which shipping is a major part, adds up to a major source of CO2 emissions, as well as particulate aerosols, which are bad for health,” Prof. Galbraith said.

“I doubt biodiesel will be the best long-term solution for shipping – hopefully, we will have other options in future that will have even lower impacts. But for now, it’s an easy change to make, and it’s essential that we get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible.”

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CSL turned to biodiesel, made from the refuse oil that is a byproduct of crushing soybeans into livestock feed, because it is a direct replacement for diesel. Biodiesel pollutes less when burned and is biodegradable if it spills, an important consideration for the marine industry. It also replaces petroleum production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent from the oil well to the ship’s wake.

“It’s a very simple way to green your operation,” said Giovanni Angelucci, vice-president of Canada Clean Fuels Inc., which supplies biodiesel to CSL as well as cities, trucking companies and other consumers across Ontario.

However, biodiesel thickens in cold weather and has a shorter shelf life than diesel. It is also almost twice as expensive as marine diesel, costing about $2,200 a tonne compared with $1,200 for marine diesel. In a ship that burns 15 or 20 tonnes a day, that can make moving such low-value goods as iron ore or wheat a money-losing venture. (For the trial, CSL said it split the added costs with its partners.)

CSL had to get a permit from the federal government to run its trial because biodiesel is not an approved marine fuel.

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The CSL Welland beside the CSL Baie Comeau, in Montreal, on Feb. 5.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Martel said CSL plans to extend the trial this year, and there are plans to widen biodiesel’s use to the dozens of ships it sails on international waters.

Hicham Ayoun, a Transport Canada spokesman, said the government will study the safety and emissions results of the trial before a decision is made on the widespread approval of 100-per-cent biodiesel.

Gregg Ruhl, CEO of CSL rival Algoma Central Corp., said the St. Catharines, Ont.-based operator of 30 ships is considering a similar trial of biodiesel. But the fuel’s high price and potential unreliability in cold weather pose hurdles to the adoption of biodiesel, Mr. Ruhl said.

“We wouldn’t do a full-blown implementation because of the economics,” Mr. Ruhl said.

Mr. Ruhl said it will take five to 10 years to learn which fuel is the best alternative to diesel. Until then, he would not order a ship that uses ammonia, methanol or hydrogen as a primary fuel without the certainty it would not be rendered obsolete. “I’d rather spend that money right now on new technologies that reduce fuel consumption – new designs and new ships,” Mr. Ruhl said.

Still, Murray Thomson, a professor in the University of Toronto’s department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry, said biodiesel could remain a fuel for limited uses, including Great Lakes ships.

“It’s going to be for niche markets,” Prof. Thomson said. “There’s not enough vegetable oil in Canada to convert all the diesel market over.”

Prof. Thomson said the source of the biodiesel is an important consideration. Fuel made from animal parts discarded by slaughterhouses diverts waste from landfills. Fuel made from oil seeds, on the other hand, is competing for food with livestock and humans.

Electric batteries pose the best alternative fuel for such light-duty vehicles as cars and delivery trucks, Prof. Thomson said, while hydrogen could power larger vehicles that require energy-dense fuels.

But replacing the vast production and distribution infrastructure of petroleum, from the wells to the pipelines and gas stations, with a network that can supply hydrogen everywhere it is needed is an undertaking that is neither cheap nor on the near horizon.

“If there was an easy solution, we’d be there already,” he said.

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