Virgin Voyages has completed its initial trial of sustainable marine fuel, marking a significant advancement towards achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The use of sustainable marine fuels is seen by many in the industry as a small, but first step, towards a cleaner future for the cruise industry. However, the term is somewhat misleading as the main component of the sustainable fuel tested by Virgin is still conventional heavy fuel oil.

Virgin Voyages has concluded its first trial towards the use of sustainable marine fuels. The trial was conducted on the Barcelona-based cruise ship Valiant Lady, which bunkered the fuel on September 24, concluding the testing and burning phase on October 16. 

During the trial period, Virgin Voyages analyzed the fuel and engine performance at various stages – bunkering, storing, and burning- to ensure it met lab requirements and operational expectations.

Jill Stoneberg, the Sr. Director of Social Impact and Sustainability at Virgin Voyages: “There are a variety of blended fuel options that are becoming available. We were especially interested in testing the performance of sustainable fuel mixed with heavy fuel oil. The latter makes up a significant portion of the industry’s fuel demand and therefore, is one of the greatest opportunities for transitioning to lower-carbon fuel solutions.”

The fuel mixture comprised 20% used cooking oil blended with 80% conventional heavy fuel oil, which, compared to other cruise lines, seems to be a step backward. Virgin Voyages did not release any test results, and how the fuels they have tested compare to other fuels. Nonetheless, the cruise line views the tests as a success. 

Testing of sustainable fuels in the maritime sector is gaining momentum, with numerous cruise lines exploring alternative fuel options. The range of fuels being tested is diverse, showing the efforts that cruise companies are making towards a more sustainable future.

Photo Credit: zkolra / Shutterstock

However, unlike other cruise lines opting for biofuel blends or LNG, Virgin Voyages chose a blend with a high concentration of conventional heavy fuel oil for its trials.

Royal Caribbean, for instance, also participated in biofuel trials, with the company testing sustainable biofuel on Celebrity Apex and Symphony of the Seas. Holland America Line recently used a 30% biofuel and 70% marine gas oil mix on Volendam. Other cruise lines in Carnival Corporation are also leveraging LNG and biofuel blends.

The fuel blend utilized by Virgin Voyages, constituting 20% used cooking oil and 80% conventional heavy fuel oil, appears to diverge from the industry’s broader shift towards cleaner fuel alternatives. 

Heavy fuel oil, even when mixed with used cooking oil, is responsible for significant carbon emissions and is associated with sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter emissions.

The blend’s high concentration of conventional heavy fuel oil, known for its significant carbon emissions, raises questions about its sustainability compared to other fuel alternatives.

Valiant Lady Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: Imaxe Press / Shutterstock)

Stoneberg added: “Completing our first sustainable fuel trial is incredibly promising; this is a near-term solution for the shipping and cruising industry. Sustainable, bio-based fuels can work with our existing engines today, and we could transition to these cleaner fuels now if they were more readily available and affordable.”

“We’re encouraging our cruising counterparts to ask for and test these fuels as stronger demand will ultimately help accelerate the market.”

However, compared to other cruise lines’ efforts, the choice of fuel blend by Virgin Voyages could be seen as less progressive toward achieving lower carbon emissions, and it would be surprising if other cruise companies would make this shift. 

Virgin Voyages, along with other industry players, is at the forefront of navigating the complex web of sustainable fuel alternatives. The outcomes of these trials will play a pivotal role in shaping the industry’s future fuel policies, with a direct impact on the cruise sector’s environmental sustainability, and whether the goals set out for 2050 will be successful

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