Japanese Consortium To Build World’s First Electric Tanker

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Reducing carbon emissions means more than just every car on Earth being a Tesla. As bad as the amount of carbon pouring into the atmosphere from millions of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles is, the emissions from shipping are far worse. Electric ships are coming. Norway is the leader so far with a fleet of 80 electric ferries in service or under construction. It has also put the first electrically powered autonomous cargo ship into operation.

Now comes news that four Japanese companies have teamed up to build the world’s first zero emission tanker. Yes, it’s a coastal tanker intended for use on Tokyo Bay, not traversing the Pacific Ocean, but it’s a significant step in the right direction. The tanker, which will be powered by electric motors and a (really large) battery pack, is projected to enter service about two years from now. The four companies — Asahi Tanker Co., Exeno Yamamizu Corp., Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., and Mitsubishi Corp — have created a joint venture called e5 Lab Inc. to build and operate the tanker.

Image courtesy e5 Lab

Cargo ships are serious emitters of carbon dioxide  because many of them operate on what is politely known as bunker oil, which is basically the sludge left over after crude oil has been refined into dozens of commercial products from jet fuel to gasoline to the stuff they make asphalt out of.

Speaking of asphalt, that’s what that bunker oil is like. It is loaded with sulfur and so thick and gooey, it needs to be heated to make it flow to the engine. When it gets burned, lots of disgusting junk goes up the smokestack into the atmosphere. There are thousands of cargo vessels plying the world’s oceans. According to some estimates, just 100 of them create more carbon emissions that all the world’s motor vehicles combined! 

Many nations are proposing rules and regulations to require ship owners to burn low sulfur fuel and clean up their carbon emissions, but those restrictions can only be enforced when the ships are within their territorial waters. Out on the open ocean, no laws pertain. Major shipping companies like Maersk, the world’s largest ocean carrier, are pushing to lower emissions, but in an industry where a few pennies per ton can make or break a shipping deal, the larger shippers are always in danger of being undercut by smaller companies operating older vessels with dirtier propulsion systems.

There’s another problem as well. The enormous diesel engines in most of these vessels have no sump full of oil to lubricate the moving parts. The bunker oil is both a fuel and a lubricant. That’s why shipping companies can’t just transition to lower carbon fuels like LNG. The entire engine would need to be replaced at a cost of a million dollars or more per ship.

While fully electric ships have struggled to penetrate major markets, momentum is gathering, according to Bloomberg. Rolls-Royce Holdings said last year that it has started offering propulsion motors for battery powered ships and Norwegian shipping company Kongsberg is developing an electric container vessel. The quest to keep the Earth from overheating will require all modes of transportation to be electrified as quickly as possible. This news about electric ships is most encouraging.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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