Logo: University of Southern California

First-ever Research on Maritime Engine Emission Reductions Shows Promise

TCC Chairman Kenneth Koo: "USC seems to be offering the best hope for both the industry and the environment.”
Angus McColl
December 12, 2011 —


About 60 handpicked leaders of the shipping industry, as well as key environmental regulators, received a briefing on potentially transformative research by the TCC Institute for Emissions Reduction from Marine Diesel Engines (TIER-MDE) on Monday, November 14. This project seeks a major change in the operation of diesel engines — to be produced with minimal dislocation and retrofit to the shipping industry. The event was hosted by the California Maritime Academy (CMA) at its campus in Vallejo, California, with the assistance of Veronica Boe of CMA and Bill Nickson, regional general manager of Transmarine Navigation Corporation.

TIER-MDE is a multi-year corporate research partnership sponsored by Kenneth Koo, chairman of Tai Chong Cheang (TCC) Steamship Co. (H.K.) Ltd. Koo’s motivation is to sponsor Viterbi School research that will help the shipping industry meet ever-stricter emission standards while keeping the cost of shipping goods by sea as low as possible.

“We need a solution right now,” he recently told Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, “and USC seems to be offering the best hope for both the industry and the environment.” The USC/TCC project and Koo are seeking a fundamental change in the operation of diesel engines, with potential broad impact on international shipping.


BURNING BETTER AND LONGER — Said Viterbi's Angus McColl: “Today, on a typical voyage, a very large crude carrier (VLCC) ship uses perhaps 90 tons of fuel per day to generate approximately 36,000 shaft horsepower. What if you could make that same voyage by burning only 70, 60, 50 or 45 tons per day, yet generating similar horsepower?"

TIER-MDE is a research effort led by a mechanical engineer, Professor Fokion Egolfopoulos, director of the USC Combustion and Fuels Research Lab, and electrical engineer and applied physicist, Professor Martin Gundersen, director of the USC Pulsed Power Research Group. The two are working to provide a game changing solution to improve the combustion process in the large two-stroke low-RPM marine diesel engines that power the world’s merchant shipping fleets.

Egolfopoulos studies the science behind the combustion process of marine “bunker fuel” — commonly used in these engines while transiting the world’s oceans.

“Up until now,” Egolfopoulos said, “the combustion process for this fuel type has been poorly understood, mainly because of the chemical complexity of such heavy fuels and the various physical processes that take place in an engine. Bunker fuel produces some very nasty pollutants because it does not burn completely in the diesel engine cylinders — only 35 to 40 percent efficiency. If we can assist nature by understanding the science and then using engineering to provide a better control of the burning process, we can eventually achieve greater efficiency and less pollutant emissions.”


Speaking at the Nov. 14 research briefing, Professor Martin Gundersen, director of the USC Pulsed Power Research Group, said, "We are, in effect, producing a very high-powered sparkplug for marine diesel engines.”

Gundersen is applying transient plasma ignition created by nano-second pulsed power electronics to achieve the desired enhanced combustion process. “We are, in effect, producing a very high-powered sparkplug for marine diesel engines,” he said. “My group has had some success in the past with this approach in other types of engines, and our initial results in Phase I testing in a one-cylinder laboratory diesel engine are promising. Now we are in the process of scaling up the application to larger engines.”

Gundersen noted that his group has also successfully applied transient plasma to treat diesel exhaust, and that the best solution may be a combined approach of both assisting combustion in the diesel engine cylinder, while also treating the exhaust. He noted that the USC Combustion and Fuels Research Lab can provide scientific proof as to how well transient plasma ignition is working.

Captain Vinay Patwardhan, TCC’s director of group operations and development, gave an introduction about the company and Koo’s motivation. Said Patwardhan: “We are very hopeful about the research Fokion and Martin are conducting at USC. The environmental regulators have a mandate to create tougher regulations that benefit us all, but they leave the actual solutions to others. USC is the only serious effort that is actually working the problem to make the fuel burn better. If they succeed, we will all win by keeping ocean shipping affordable, using less fuel per voyage to generate similar power output as now, producing less greenhouse gases and reducing other harmful pollutants.”

The research plan is now midway through the second of five years. Phase II testing on truck-sized diesel engines is about to begin. The effort will then be scaled up to Phase III testing on a full-sized marine diesel engine, followed by a two-track program to commercialize the technology by back-fitting existing engines and also incorporating it in new-design engines.