What is AdBlue and why shortages of it could cause issues across supply chains?
While AdBlue is a relatively unknown material for the average consumer, in the commercial road freight transport market, the liquid has become a very important part of the process of carrying goods from point A to point B.
The main goal of AdBlue, or Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF), or as it is also known as AUS 32, is to minimize the pollution caused by the combustion process of an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). The liquid solution has its own separate tank, in addition to the typical diesel fuel tank attached to a vehicle, as DEF is consumed when diesel fuel is burned.
How does AdBlue work?
The non-hazardous liquid is made up of urea (32.5%) and deionized water (67.5%). The former is an organic compound that can be found in humans as well as mammals, and as anecdotal it might sound, is the main material found in the urine of many mammals. The latter, meanwhile, is just water without (almost) its mineral ions.
The two materials are combined to be used in Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR). Exhaust gasses that enter an exhaust system with an SCR, as well as an AdBlue valve, do so through a particulate filter that stops additional soot from exiting the vehicle’s inner systems. The soot must be burned off timely to regenerate the filter, and the regeneration process burns off the extra soot in the filter itself, preventing harmful emissions from exiting through the exhaust.
Going further up the exhaust system, the exhaust gasses pass by a valve that releases DEF, or AdBlue as it is known in Europe, reacting with the released fluid and converting nitrogen dioxide and monoxide, two harmful gasses, into nitrogen and water, which are not harmful materials.
The tank of the fluid can vary by size, depending on the operator’s choice of trim of their trucks. For example, Volvo offers an AdBlue tank of between 48 and 100 liters. Mercedes-Benz offers customers to opt for the right size of a fuel tank for their needs, with up to 90 liters of capacity dedicated to the exhaust fluid. Consumption of the DEF varies between manufacturers and between vehicle types, as well depending on the driving style and location (urban or international transportation, for example).
Usage of AdBlue
The usage of the SCR method became widely popular with the introduction of the Euro 4 standard in 2005, as the European Commission (EC) introduced more stringent emissions requirements. While neither Euro 4 nor Euro 5, or Euro 6 standards require a mandatory installation of AdBlue tanks or the usage of it, manufacturers had little wiggle room to make diesel engines more environmentally friendly.
According to research conducted by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), commissioned by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, even the same engine standard vehicles can have different emission levels, as measured by a portable emissions measurement system (PEMS).
For example, the 69 analyzed International transport trucks had an average NOx emission of around four grams per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while 16 distribution trucks had an average NOx emission of around five g/kWh. The consumption of AdBlue, however, was different, with 1.35 liters per 100 kilometers and 0.83 l/100 km, respectively.
“It can be concluded that for international transport and for fluid bulk transport, the relative AdBlue consumption is frequently on a level of 3-6%, which is on or not far below the level indicated by the truck OEMs [Original Equipment Manufacturer – ed. note],” read the paper. Furthermore, average figures indicated that consumption of DEF increases with higher engine power, as more powerful vehicles are typically used for international transportation.
The usual conditions for such vehicles “are more favorable for an SCR after treatment system,” concluded the study, providing proof that the usage of AdBlue is favorable for long-haul international transportation.
The study also pointed out that operators with a younger fleet of vehicles benefited from the usage of AdBlue even more in order to reduce their emissions, as trucks compliant with Euro 5 standards (registered between 2009 and 2010) showcased fewer instances where AdBlue consumption was 3% (AdBlue-to-fuel ratio) than trucks registered in 2006, for example. While having a new fleet of trucks is a more expensive option compared to operating vehicles for more than a couple of years, it can not only provide additional fuel savings but also help carriers be more environmentally friendly. Even so, such trucks as the Volvo FH with the I-Save technology can help transport companies reduce their fuel consumption by an additional 10%, and Girteka Logistics is proud of the fact that its fleet includes such trucks as the FH.
AdBlue remains an important part of the road transportation process. The DEF is one of the best ways to reduce the emissions of harmful chemicals into the environment out of the exhaust now, as the sector is yet to adopt true emissions-free vehicles into their fleets. At the same time, without AdBlue supply chains would stop abruptly, as the fluid is a must in order to even start a truck.
The same supply chains remain largely in chaos, as global trade is struggling to adapt to the current environment. Logistics prices are shooting through the roof, in part because of rising operating costs as a result of the ever-rising fuel prices.
One of the additional by-products of the rising fossil fuel, including natural gas, prices is that prices for AdBlue have also risen, with some manufacturers threatening to even suspend production as a result.
According to multiple local media reports, a Slovak producer of synthetic urea, a key component of the DEF and a by-product of fertilizers used in agriculture, reportedly warned that it might stop production completely, following German and Italian producers of the same material. In Hungary, due to the shortage of the material, restrictions have been placed on the amount of AdBlue an individual party can purchase.
However, all is not grim, as the situation in Poland should not warrant a shortage of the fluid, yet there are warnings that the price of AdBlue will continue to rise in the following few months, according to reports by Trans.info. Furthermore, Shell, a gas and oil company that also produces the additive, feels confident about its ability to produce AdBlue.
“The key message is that Shell has long-term contracts and production is secured. What happened was that there was a period panic, where unprecedented demand was seen across sites in Europe. The situation, however, has since stabilized and Shell is able to ensure the supply of AdBlue,” commented the company.
As the price of AdBlue could potentially grow in the near-term future, it would only increase the pressure on the supply chains across Europe, especially if, in a worst-case scenario, there would be a continent-wide shortage of the DEF. With said supply chains in disarray and the peak season of pre-Christmas shopping coming up, an already perfect storm scenario could only make a painful situation worse.