Lots of crazy ideas for powering ships have been floated; this'll happen sooner than many think
By Ryan Skinner (email)
How do you power a huge merchant vessel without the help of fossil fuels? It's a question I've addressed before, with a team of engineers, in their customer magazine, Generations' first issue. Among engineers within the industry, there's a lot of scepticism, but is it justified?
Both climate change and the focus on regulating emissions are spurring each other on, and, I think, few people would have foreseen the pace and intensity of these forces over the last five years or so. And I think that the pace and intensity of innovation and development within the industry will awe us all over the next five.
Consider a few sources of power that offer to change the paradigm:
- Nuclear - The thought undoubtedely sends shivers down the backs of many shipowners, governments and seafarers, but more than one serious shipper has seriously discussed this option.
- High-voltage shore connections - Not a solution for transits, but a new way to power ships while at berth. A global standard will be in place this year. That, combined with Sweden's and California's regulatory moves to stimulate this (if subtly), signal a sea change.
- Fuel cells - The FellowSHIP project demonstrates that this can actually work in operation. Granted, only as auxiliary power, for now, but it was enough to get Richard Branson excited.
- Biofuels - Both Solazyme and ExxonMobil are developing marine fuels based on bio-feedstock. Car-drivers in many countries can already choose gas with a small proportion of biofuel. Ships may be next...
- Batteries - Today you'd need to fill the ship with batteries, leaving little space for cargo, to power it across an ocean. But battery technology is due for a game-changing development very soon. Might the energizer bunny soon come to a ship near you?
What do you think? Do you know of a large merchant ship already operating without fossil fuels? When will this happen?