New technology in the maritime industry
Apr 14, 2022
The disruptions that have been felt in the supply chain and logistics network worldwide have had a direct impact on the maritime industry. The industry may have been slow to adopt new technologies, but many factors have converged to ensure that improvements in shipping operations accelerate the maritime sector as a whole into the twenty-first century.
Decarbonization and the search for viable renewables
One of the key factors that is driving innovation in the shipping industry is the climate crisis and the need for sustainability. Shipping is responsible for around 940 million tons of CO2 annually, which is at least 2.5% of the world’s total CO2 emissions. With the cost of fuel going up due to shortages in natural resources, it is becoming even more evident that the reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable. ESG (environmental, social and governance) also demands that shipping companies take stock of sustainable business practices to manage risk and growth if they are to gain investment. In order to survive, commercial shipping must revolutionize itself.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has called for the shipping industry to lower carbon emissions by at least 40% by 2030, and preferably by 70% by 2050 (compared with 2008 levels). In response, the Singapore-based Global Center for Maritime Decarbonization (GCMD) and Copenhagen-based Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping entered into a partnership in February 2022 to provide momentum to the industry’s decarbonization agenda. The two research bodies have committed to a long-term strategic collaboration, driven by a joint vision to transform the industry. This will be achieved through best practice and collaborative knowledge, with a focus on developing low- and zero-carbon technologies, which can be deployed along green corridors.
Until the IMO 2020 environmental regulations came into force two years ago, ships consumed high sulfur fuel oil (HSFO). Since January 1 2020, ships have been required to use more expensive fuel with lower (0.5%) sulfur content known as very low sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO). Ships equipped with exhaust-gas scrubbers have been allowed to continue to burn HSFO with a sulfur content of 3.5%. This demonstrates that the reliance on fossil fuels creates complications when industry regulations try to lower the environmental impact without innovation. In this case, shipowners take on the expense of using low sulfur fuels in a bid to help lower carbon emissions for the industry. This creates a double bind as container ships are still reliant on diminishing resources but at a higher cost.
A similar false solution is liquified natural gas (LNG), which proponents like Shell point out reduces pollution from nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, while cutting emissions of sulfur oxides by more than 90%. This may help to meet regulatory requirements, but these changes only serve to continue environmental damage under the belief that the impact is less, while prolonging the growing pains associated with changing the industry for good. There are much more disruptive ways to lower fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions that take a long-term view, shifting the reliance away from fossil fuels to alternative fuels as a primary source of power completely.
Smart ships are the future
Based on America’s Cup wing sails, Smart Green Shipping (SGS) has developed a wind-assist power solution called the FastRigs system. The ‘smart’ vertical aerofoils can be mounted on vessels, do not require additional crew members to operate them, can be dropped easily when needed, and do not need port-side infrastructure changes. The aerofoils are paired with a sophisticated analysis system that can accurately calculate the available wind to any ship, across any trade route at different speeds. They can also easily be repaired and recycled at end of life taking into account circularity.
The SGS team that created the system worked with the Wolfson Unit for Marine Technology and Industrial Architecture to verify that the ship studied, the Ultrabulk Tiger, could save approximately 20% fuel every year on the route from Baton Rouge to Liverpool while carrying biomass. In the final summary report for the project, SGS writes with regards to the technology, “From academics to financiers, we are told “it’s a ‘no-brainer’”. But like so many climate-focused commercially viable solutions, there is a Catch 22 where nobody (so far) is prepared to finance the critical next ‘innovation’ stage – enabling SGS Demonstrator in the water.”
Other projects such as Ceiba capture energy from underwater propellers as well as solar power, to generate energy for one of the largest marine electric engines of its kind in the world. Ceiba is the first ship design built by Sailcargo, a company aiming to prove that zero-carbon shipping is possible, and commercially viable.
Meanwhile, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) project considers that the huge volumes carried by cargo ships could be significantly reduced if crews and their supplies such as food and water were removed. Led by marine research organization ProMare and IBM, MAS explores the possibility of fully autonomous hybrid ships that use wind and solar power as well as diesel.
Autonomous ships still currently need remote control from a crew on land who follow progress with real-time tracking. However, increased machine learning from accrued big data could make full automation a possibility in the future. MV Yara Birkeland is an autonomous 120 TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit) container ship that became the world’s first autonomous cargo ship in November 2021.
Digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, cybersecurity, the internet of things (IoT), augmented reality, and blockchain may seem like they are part of some far-off future in vessel operations, but they are increasingly becoming a reality with smart ships. New ship technology has traditionally been slow to take hold, but the pandemic has accelerated the search for viable maritime technology that contributes to solving problems, whether that’s reducing human error in ship management, preventing cyber attacks, or minimizing the carbon footprint of shipping.
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