Sailing the seas

 By Nicholas Newman

Today, around 90 per cent of the world’s trade in goods, is carried by sea. According to Shipping Intelligence Weekly, there were approximately 58,000 cargo carrying ships operating in June 2012. It has been calculated that maritime shipping is responsible for emitting over 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year accounting for over 3% of worldwide CO2 emissions in 2007. The world oil tanker fleet was responsible for some 12 per cent of total CO2 emissions by global shipping, reported the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in 2012. Currently, the global maritime industry’s ships and tankers rely on engines fuelled by heavy bunker oil and diesel. However, a combination of rising oil prices and ever stricter environmental regulations have raised operating costs driving ship owners to demand greater fuel efficiency, lower emissions and faster turn-around times in port. Nicholas Newman looks at how ship operators are seeking new ways to cut costs and reduce pollution by the adoption of new methods of powering ships including sail, LNG, solar, hydrogen, batteries…

(Cover photo by

“Sailing the seas” conjures up an image of sparkling waves, bracing winds and clear blue skies, but what is the reality of shipping today? According to the International Chamber of Shipping, around 90 percent of the world’s trade is now transported to market by some 50,000 ships. They are powered by untaxed shipping fuel, which is highly polluting, reports Euroactive.

The economic costs of using such fuel in European waters have been calculated by Lief Miller, the CEO of conservation NGO Naturschutzbund Deutschland e.V. He states, “Marine fuel is 2,700 times dirtier than road diesel and €35 billion [$40 billion] of fuel tax is paid yearly in Europe for road transport, while shipping uses tax-free fuel.” The social cost to European taxpayers is even greater at some €58 billion [$66 billion] a year spent on treating patients suffering from such pollution, reports Euroactive.

The response to this and other evidence was the landmark introduction in 2013 of Emission Control Areas (ECA’s) requiring environmentally-friendly low sulphur fuels be used by vessels in North American and European territorial waters — although cheaper heavy bunker oil and diesel currently dominates in open seas and oceans. Recognition of the environmental impact of shipping has stimulated marine engineers and operators to find new means of fueling ships and tankers. Besides research, re-engineering traditional sail-power with modern technology and materials alternative solutions are currently being adopted. These include firstly, the use of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG); the second is hybrid technology employing battery power; third is “Cold Ironing,” whereby ships in port are run on electric power supplied from on shore.

SEE MORE: An incredible visualization of the world’s shipping routes by Vox

The rise of LNG

For many years LNG tankers have used some of their cargo as a fuel for their engines. As a result, LNG is now being used as a source of fuel in some freight ships. “At the moment there are 75 LNG-fueled ships in operation, plus more than 85 confirmed orders,” observes Gerd-Michael Würsig, DNV GL Business Director LNG-fueled Ships. Among the vessels in operation include, ferries, coastal and patrol vessels. It has been suggested that ultra-large containerships and bulk carriers, could be a viable option.

“DNV GL expects that around 600 vessels will operate on LNG in 2020, suggests Gerd-Michael Würsig. Yet, many are likely to operate in North American and European waters. For example, Norwegian-based Eidesvik Offshore ASA, operates 5 LNG fueled offshore oil field supply ships in the North Sea. However, across the Atlantic in the US, two new American-owned container ships, each 764-foot (232-m) long, have been launched in the past year. The ships’ owners, New Jersey-based shipping company TOTE Services, has placed them on the Jacksonville, Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico route. Compared to conventionally-powered ships, these vessels are the cleanest in the world, energy efficient and reducing sulphur emissions by 97 percent.

As a ship fuel, LNG meets many of current and likely future demands to contain and reduce emissions (SOx, NOx, PM, CO2) in both port and in open seas. In addition, new plentiful sources of LNG supplies are opening up in Australia, Africa and North America. Safety-wise LNG has a good record. However, there are downsides to using it to fuel vessels, most notably their methane emissions, which risks swapping “one environmental issue for another,” says risk consultant, Steve Allum at Renaissance Risk. As LNG has a lower energy density than oil Allum suggests that an LNG- powered ship “is, therefore, less likely to be used on longer journeys. “

Westcon equips 'Viking Energy' with energy storage system

Problems with LNG ships

“The main challenges for investment in LNG as a ship-fuel includes the lack of common operating standards and market-related financial constraints,” states Würsig. There are, first of all, practical and design issues to be settled, including agreement on the safe minimum distance between the LNG tank and the outer hull of the ship in case of collision — and whether an LNG tank can be safely located below accommodation of crew and passengers.

The latter is an important consideration for cruise ships, suggests DNV GL Group. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) subcommittee on Bulk Liquid Gases is currently working on updating the international code of safety for gas-fueled ships. When completed, the findings should provide a useful design guide for LNG-powered ships of the future.

Financing and construction costs have also proved a major constraint on the rate of adoption of LNG-powered ships. They can be at least 10 to 25 percent more expensive to construct than similar ships using oil since “the insulated storage tanks needed for LNG contribute to the higher price tag,” explains Anders Mikkelsen, a business development leader for maritime advisory at DNV GL in Oslo. This means that it can take between five to eight years to recover construction costs.

At present, the operators of LNG fueled ships face many challenges. These include an inadequate global network of LNG bunkering or refueling facilities. In 2014, there were just 22 operational facilities worldwide, according to Lloyd’s Register LNG Bunkering Infrastructure Survey 2014. At that time, 15 were located in European ports, 4 in North America and just 3 in the whole of the Far East. In Europe, the EU is supporting the construction of at least 139 maritime and inland ports LNG refueling stations, which should be completed by 2020.

Outside Europe there are plans for the construction of at least 50 LNG refueling points. Many of these are destined to be built in China, South Korea and Japan. Gerd-Michael Würsig says, “In the long run, new liquefaction capacity in the United States and Australia will increase LNG availability by 30 percent.“ He adds, “The price should drop over the next four years.“

There is likely to be increased pressure on ship operators to adopt cleaner fuel technology when the European Union adds the coastal waters of its Mediterranean states to its current Environment Control Areas (ECA). By 2020, the EU’s ECA will be made up of the Baltic Sea, North Sea, English Channel and Northern Mediterranean.

Port of Rotterdam is the number 1 european hub for LNG

Hybrid Ships

It has become commonplace to see hybrid buses and trucks on roads and hybrid trams and trains on rails. It is now the shipping industry’s turn to adopt hybrid propulsion systems employing batteries alongside conventional diesel or oil engines. “Batteries optimize the operation of the internal combustion engine, which means reduced fuel consumption, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and particles, and not least, improved power system reliability,” says MARINTEK research manager Anders Valland. Besides offering significant savings in fuel consumption and emissions, the reduction in the size of hybrid engines makes room for more space to devote to either cargo, crew or passengers.

Industry experts foresee battery capacity doubling by 2020 without a corresponding rise in cost. This underpins developments in the mass production of hybrid electric battery operated cars and underlies marine engine manufacturer ABB’s belief in the market potential for electric vessels and el-hybrid vessels in the near future.

An alternative hybrid format is provided by GE’s LM2500+G4 gas turbine, shockproof MV3000 hybrid-electric drives and an electrical network of motors — in essence, a gas turbine hybrid-electric propulsion system. This engine is being installed in the Pattugliatori Polivalenti d’Altura (PPA), a multipurpose patrol ship destined for the Italian Navy being built by Fincantieri at its Integrated Shipyard of Riva Trigoso and Muggiano. According to Fincantieri, the ship will be 129 m (39 ft) long, carry 90 crew members, with additional accommodation for up to 171.

SEE MORE: Increasing shipping’s sustainability by Mike Scott


Battery powered vessels

Of the ubiquitous ferries and tugs crisscrossing northern European ports, a few rely predominantly on battery power and diesel generators to charge the batteries when in port or to provide additional power at peak times. The Noordzee, the first of three ASD TUG 2810 Hybrid vessels supplied by Damen, has recently been delivered to the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) at Den Helder harbour in Holland. With two rudder propeller units, the Noordzee is able to sail on full electric power by means of the combined output of its batteries and power generated from its diesel-electric generator set. Another early adopter is the Swedish Navy, which has ordered three tugs of a similar design from Damen, reports

Going one step further, the Ampere, the first all-electric battery-powered emission-free car and passenger ferry in the world, operates between ports in South West Norway, reports DNV GL. The local hydropower company Norled and German technology company Siemens installed three battery packs, equivalent to 4,800 standard car batteries, and a lithium-ion battery on the ferry and each of the piers visited, enabling the ferry to be recharged within 10 minutes before setting sail again. And it is very economical. According to Siemens, the ferry uses 150 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per route, which is three days’ electricity consumption for a typical Norwegian household — and it can carry 120 cars and up to 360 passengers at a maximum speed of 10 knots.

(Ampere is the first electric car and passenger ferry in the world)

“Cold Ironing”

Cold ironing,allows a ship or barge in port to turn off its engines and use electric power supplied by a power cable from onshore to run its essential systems such as heating, lighting and equipment. By substituting electricity for diesel or oil while in port, cold ironing eliminates those harmful emissions. Led by European and North American ports, such as Rotterdam and Los Angeles, the use of cold ironing is spreading to other ports around the world.


To date, the adoption of alternative fuel technologies has been slow. This is not surprising given the problems of cost, technological and safety issues, especially at a time of low fuel prices and a depressed freight market. However, the worldwide accord on the pressing need for action to reduce emissions will govern the direction of innovation towards cleaner ship’s engines. The seas may sparkle again and the maritime winds will be clean.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.