Transportation – Part 4: The Marine Challenge – Ships and Routes

In our last blog we looked at how the packaging of goods will change as containers evolve as well as the evolution of ports and port technology. Like the ports they call on ships will undergo dramatic changes throughout the 21st century largely driven by rising energy costs and concerns about atmospheric pollution and climate change. In this blog we look at the technologies that current shipbuilders are incorporating into their design plans.

We’ll also look at the impact of these new designs on shipping lanes. With larger ships incapable of using the Panama and Suez Canals, investment in new canals will become a priority.

And finally we’ll look at how climate change will alter existing routes as Arctic ice melts and sea levels rise.


Today container and bulk carrier ships are fossil-fuel dependent. These include heavy fuel oil, marine gas oil, gas-to-liquid fuel, and liquefied natural gas. Increasingly the marine shipping industry is addressing the issue of marine pollution including emissions. Many ships today use exhaust abatement technology consisting of open-loop scrubbers and catalytic reduction similar to the technology deployed with automobiles running internal combustion engines.

Ship emissions using heavy fuel oil contribute to acid rain while  liquid natural gas decreases acidification by as much as 90% not taking into consideration the production processes required to make the fuel. None of the fossil fuels used by marine ships today can be described as carbon neutral with the highest global warming potential connected to gas-to-liquid fuel.

What technologies and strategies are shipbuilders and ship owners deploying in the 21st century to address pollution, particularly CO2?

Going Nuclear – the first nuclear reactors were not built to generate power for mass consumption. They were built to be the power plants for naval ships. The first of these was the USS Nautilus, a submarine completed in 1955.  Submarines were ideal test beds for nuclear power. With no need for oxygen to feed fuel-based engine technology, nuclear submarines could remain submerged for days running at very high-speed. Today there are approximately 140 nuclear-powered ships in service operating 180 on board small nuclear reactors. The majority are submarines with a smaller number of aircraft carriers, cruisers and ice breakers. There have been some pioneering merchant ships that used nuclear power plants such as the NS Savannah. But these have proven commercial failures with few exceptions.

What is making nuclear attractive is its carbon footprint which at the power plant level is zero. In addition nuclear-powered ships have demonstrated an excellent safety record. It seems, however, that any nuclear power accident leads to global condemnation of the technology. As a result of the Fukushima post-tsunami disaster in 2011 several projects involving large Chinese shipping companies building nuclear-powered container ships have been put on hold.

Despite Fukushima, Babcock International’s marine division has considered developing a nuclear-powered liquid natural gas  tanker. Lloyd’s Register along with a number of major ship builders from European Union countries have also been studying commercial nuclear-powered ships using very small modular reactors intended as power plants for tankers. The most promising projects are in the following ship categories: large, long-distance bulk carriers that travel between dedicated ports with the infrastructure to support them, passenger cruise ships that combine nuclear with diesel back up, large tug boats capable of  trans-oceanic hauling of conventional ships, and high-speed bulk carriers.

Hybrid Engine Technology – Companies like Siemens are delivering diesel-electric propulsion systems for large merchant ships, naval vessels and smaller boats. This technology delivers lower fuel and energy consumption and reduced CO2 emissions. Additional advantages over conventional diesel include greater cruising range, higher reliability and less noise pollution. Today new cruise ships combine electrical power with diesel or gas turbine. Advantages include reduced power plant size making for more flexible ship design, lower weight, higher engine efficiency even at low speeds, fuel and cost savings, reduced noise and much lower pollutant emissions.

Some manufacturers are combining solar with conventional power plants on ships. The M/V Auriga Leader is a new class of cargo ship that deploys 328 solar panels to provide energy for the ship’s main electrical grid. The shipbuilder, NYK, has developed prototypes for an even more advanced modular hybrid container ship, the NYK Super Eco Ship. The ship is designed to produce 70% less CO2 emissions than current commercial vessels. Designed as four semi-autonomous modules, the ship upon arrival at a destination port will be capable of splitting into pieces with one part picking up while the other offloads cargo. The power plant includes liquid natural gas fuel cells, solar arrays and eight retractable telescoping masts, each bearing a light-weight airfoil sail. NYK plans to deliver this vessel to market by 2030.

CargoXpress is a small port container ship that combines sail and solar or sail and gas turbine technology.The air foil consists of composite material and opens once at sea like the upper part of a clam shell. Using solar technology the CargoXpress can handle up to 200 containers. Designed for Mediterranean Sea shallow ports the ship includes a cantilevered crane capable of unloading containers onshore without the need for port equipment.

Solar Power – Pure solar-powered ships present many challenges. An experimental vessel, the Tûranor PlanetSolar, features an upper deck covered with almost 500 square meters of photovoltaic solar panels. Operated by a four-person crew the power plant consists of a solar array supplemented by lithium batteries that act as solar energy storage and a power source on cloudy days and nights. The ship can travel about 200 kilometers a day using the power of the sun and at an average speed of 15 knots at night using battery power.

Thermosolar captures the heat from the sun in heat sinks made using salts such as rock salt, sodium nitrate and potassium carbonate. ABENGOA, a Spanish-owned thermal energy company is the developer of a thermosolar land-based plant in Nevada that uses the heat from molten sodium and potassium salts to drive steam turbines. The company is experimenting with a ship-sized thermosolar equivalent for short-distance marine transportation. Land-based solar collectors would generate the heat energy for the onboard molten salt thermal storage systems. Water pumped through the molten salt would convert to steam to drive turbines. Ships using this technology would need the capacity to carry not only cargo but the thermal salt because insufficient volume would not generate enough heat.

Sail and Wind Power – We are not returning to the days of rigged canvas sail. Instead companies like B9, in the U.K., and Fair Transport B.V., in the Netherlands, are building rigless sailing ships designed primarily to work using the wind.

The B9 design includes masts that fully rotate with sails that operate electronically to achieve best wind angles. Each sail is a composite of small sails that can be easily replaced. Loss of a sail does not impact general performance with live test results to-date achieving speeds of almost 25 knots. With B9 sailing ships 60% of the energy used will come from wind supplemented by gas turbines using waste-derived bio-gas only when the winds die down. B9’s market niche  is lower volume routes that can maximize the use of wind power. These will include many island ports.

Ecoliner is the 8,000 ton, 120 meter-long cargo ship being developed by Fair Transport B.V. Featuring 3 free-standing sails, the ship is designed using similar technology to that being deployed by B9 with supplementary power coming from diesel-electric engines. Ecoliner is a designed to transport 200 containers using up to 90% less fuel than conventional vessels. Ecoliner should be operating by 2013.

Bigger Ships and Fewer

Maersk, Seaspan and other container shipping companies are focusing on building super-sized container ships with the capacity to hold from 10,000 to 18,000 containers per vessel. These will dwarf current container ships that have capacities of between 3,000 and 8,000.

Maersk, a Danish company, is planning to operate 30 of these super container ships with the first 10 to be delivered in 2013 and 2014. Defined as triple-E, these ships combine economies of scale, energy efficiency and environmental controls. Each ship is 400 meters (1,312 feet) long and requires 50% of the fuel currently consumed by the largest container ships. The ships are also designed to be 35 percent more energy-efficient because engine waste heat is recaptured and used to power the ship.

This new breed of container ship is not capable of using existing canals like the Panama and Suez and will principally operate on trans-oceanic routes between China, the United States and Europe. In consolidating their fleets Seaspan and Maersk will reduce the carbon footprint of their operations. This will help container operators to meet the goals of the Clean Shipping Project, an industry, sea port and government-sponsored initiative started in the North Sea off Europe’s coast and focused on corporate social responsibility related to conservation and environmental concerns.

Lower Emission Fuels

The B9 project described above is using bio-gas, a product of B9’s waste-to-biofuel manufacturing.  DNV, a Norwegian company, is building propulsion systems that combine electric drives with diesel, liquid natural gas and fuel cells. The Quantum 9000 is a container ship designed to reduce its environmental footprint while capable of passing through the expanded Panama Canal opening in 2014. More than 330 meters (1,030 feet) in length, this ship reduces CO2 by 30%, nitrous oxide (N2O) by 80%, and sulfur dioxide (SO2) by 95%.

New and Expanded Shipping Lanes

Global warming is changing where merchant ships can operate. Probably the most significant change is the Arctic where the Northeast Passage above Russia, and the Northwest Passage, through Canada’s northern islands, represent short cuts from Asia to Europe and North America. A summer, ice-free Arctic Ocean is a climate change problem that benefits marine shippers looking for safe passage through the Arctic. Shorter routes means lower fuel consumption and less environmental pollution. It also means avoiding  waters south of the Suez Canal where piracy near the Horn of Africa has become endemic.  Climatologists are predicting passable sea routes through the Canadian Arctic by 2020 as summer sea ice continues to shrink. Russia is already operating ice breakers as a service to marine ships attempting the Northeast Passage.

As more super containers get delivered to major marine shipping companies the Arctic routes may become the preferred method of navigating between Asia, North America and Europe.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...