Getting DEF a(n)d Blue

Without trucks, Australia stops. Turns out, without DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluid, often referred to as the trademarked brand AdBlue), earthmoving, construction, mining, agriculture and many other sectors of Australia and the world that relies on diesel stops (including luxury cars). It’s high time we looked at the sustainability and self-sufficiency of our economy. When we rely on one country for 80% of the supply of the key ingredient (Urea) and that country (China) decided to ban exports, they showed us that they can cause our economy to grind to a halt.

DEF is a relatively simple mix of Urea and de-mineralised water that is injected before the catalytic converter on many newer diesel engines to meet emissions regulations, with the main benefit being to reduce NOx (Nitrous Oxide) pollution. Approximately 20-25% of on-highway trucks require DEF, mostly the newer line haul trucks, so this block on DEF is yet another example of how quite literally Australia’s economy can grind to a halt. We know of earthmoving machinery on entire sites having been parked up due to the recent shortage. A typical engine requires 2-6% DEF to diesel consumption, and in the event the engine runs out, the engine derates to approximately 40% of max torque (“limp mode”).

The DEF system can technically be disengaged, but this can cause damage to the engine and exhaust system and any of its parts, including creating heat issues, thereby likely voiding warranty. Disabling the DEF system even for a short period will likely require the replacement of the catalytic converter and other parts. It is illegal on any road registered vehicles to disable a DEF system, but Non-Road Diesel Engines (NDRE) are not subject to Australian Design Rules, which means in some applications (seek your own advice, including checking State and contractual obligations) it is not illegal for the owner to modify or disable Adblue/DEF systems to cope with the current supply shortages. “Not illegal” doesn’t mean it’s a good idea (and we are not advocating that any owner should without checking with the manufacturer and authorities) as there are detrimental impacts on the environment and health, as well as your machine, and you could find yourself in legal strife.

So how did Australia end up in the predicament where we don’t have access to a simple yet essential product like DEF? Urea’s other application is as a fertiliser for agriculture. Basically just like for fuel production, Australia has the raw ingredients (and exports these only to ship back the finished product), but struggle with high costs and a comparatively small domestic market. Uncompetitive manufacturing costs in Australia (due to all colours of tape, high energy and labour costs) exceed the cost of twice shipping the product great distances overseas. So progressively our local capabilities have shut down, with the remaining main producer (Incitec Pivot in Brisbane, who have now tripled production capacity) also due to close down in 2022 until the Federal Government jumped in due to the crisis. We can blame ourselves as consumers, all too often buying on price over quality and self-sufficiency considerations. When we are considering exporting un-tried Hydrogen, you’d think we’d find a way to competitively mix Urea (which is mostly ammonia) with basically water and ship it one way as an export item. Supply chain sovereignty should become an election policy issue.

As always, onwards and upwards!

Fred Carlsson

General Manager

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