Like nothing you’ve ever seen before

With growing concern about global emissions and climate change, the shipping industry has decided to clean up its act (sorry).

I spoke yesterday about just how shocking the shipping industry’s pollution stats are. Spoiler alert: one cargo ship produces more pollution than every car in the UK put together.

Today we’re looking at what they are doing to change that.

Back to the future

Maersk is the world’s largest shipping company. Almost 1 in 5 containers on the sea today are carried by Maersk. So if Maersk reduced its pollution, it would have a massive impact on worldwide emissions.

So it’s good news that Maersk has pledged to cut its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

And that’s not a goal like all new cargo ships to be non-polluting by 2050 – a la the UK’s 2040 carbon neutral car campaign. It means its entire working fleet – old and new.

Given that the life of a cargo ship is around 20-25 years, it needs to start making those changes, well, now.

“We will have to abandon fossil fuels. We will have to find a different type of fuel or a different way to power our assets. This is not just another cost-cutting exercise. It’s far from that. It’s an existential exercise, where we as a company need to set ourselves apart,” Soren Toft, Maersk’s chief operating officer, told the Financial Times.

He added that, “to reach the target by 2050, in the next 10 years we need some big breakthroughs.”

According to the Financial Times:

Maersk is not pushing one technology — ideas such as biofuels, hydrogen, electricity or even wind or solar power have been mooted — but is stressing the urgency as most vessels have a life of 20-25 years, meaning that viable solutions need to be found soon.

One of the areas Maersk and others are looking into is sails. That’s right, the world’s leading shipping company is now adding sails to its fleet.

But these aren’t like any sails you’ve seen before. They look more like big metal pillars. They are called rotor sails.

Here’s what they look like:


They kind of make cargo ships look like big old steamers. They work by spinning around and propelling the ship forward.

From Wikipedia:

A Magnus rotor used to propel a ship is called a rotor sail and is mounted with its axis vertical. When the wind blows from the side, the Magnus effect creates a forward thrust. Thus, as with any sailing ship, a rotor ship can only move forwards when there is a wind blowing. The commonest form of rotor sail is the Flettner rotor.

Due to the arrangement of forces, a rotor ship is able to sail closer to the wind than a conventional sailing ship. Other advantages include the ease of control from sheltered navigation stations and the lack of furling requirements in heavy weather.

The wind does not power the rotor itself, which must have its own power source to spin it up.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Maersk began testing rotator sails on its ships in August, at a cost of around £0.9 to £1.8 million apiece.

It’s estimated that these sails will make Maersk’s ships 10% more efficient, cutting down on fuel costs and pollution.

But it’s going to take a lot more than that if Maersk wants to hit its 100% carbon neutral by 2050 target.

What about electric?

Electric ships are good for short distances, but not for long-haul routes. China famously built an all-electric cargo ship in 2017, to much applause.

The irony of that development was the ship was created to ferry coal up the Pearl River.

From Clean Technica in December 2017:

China has launched the first all-electric cargo ship. According to China Daily, the 230 foot long vessel is equipped with a 2,400 kWh lithium-ion battery that stores enough electrical energy to transport 2200 tons of cargo a distance of 50 miles on a single charge at a top speed of about 8 miles per hour. Time to recharge the battery is given as 2 hours, which is approximately the time needed to unload the ship at its destination.

The all-electric cargo ship will be used primarily to transport coal to generating stations along the Pearl River. So, imagine this — the world now has a ship that can claim to be zero emissions even though it is powered by electricity generated by burning coal, one of the dirtiest of fossil fuels in terms of carbon emissions, and is used to transport coal more cheaply.

You’ve got to love that irony.

Still, it is clear that shipping companies are taking their polluting seriously. And it’s good news that the world’s biggest seems committed to going zero carbon by 2050.

Given that cargo ships currently produce more pollution than all the world’s cars – many times over – that can only be a good thing for our future.

This is something Eoin Treacy covered in Frontier Tech Investor back in December:

A year from now Norwegian firm Yara in conjunction with Kongsberg are due to launch the first fully electric and autonomous container ship on its maiden voyage. The news is regularly filled with stories about how soon we are likely to see the fully autonomous electric vehicles on our roads, but the reality is land-based travel is complicated.

There are a lot of moving bodies that a vehicle could bump into and they are all travelling at different speeds. It makes the job of trying to figure out how to negotiate a path around them quite challenging.

Sailing and flying are infinitely easier to develop autonomous vehicles for because quite simply there are fewer things to bump into. Once a ship is out at sea there are potential obstacles such as other ships, icebergs and islands but they are few and far between while ships tend to move considerably slower than cars or trucks. For planes, once sufficient altitude has been reached, and airspace apportioned there isn’t much to bump into other than other aircraft and mountains. The smaller number of potential obstacles and the relatively predictable trajectory of the known issues makes it simply easier to develop autonomous systems for ships and planes.

Autonomous ships are likely to be the first sector we see true autonomy delivered and it will give us an immediate perspective on what will happen to the workforces, primarily Filipino sailors, who will be impacted. We read constantly about the conundrum of what all the truckers and drivers are going to do when their jobs are automated away, but in 2018 we will get a real-world view of how that might play out in the shipping sector.

If you would like to know more about Eoin’s investment research into autonomous cargo ships – and other world-changing technologies that you can directly invest in – you can join Frontier Tech Investor here.
Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Energy

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