International Waters

Capt. Max Hardberger Zero-emission ships and costs

October 30, 2012

The first practical “zero-emission” commercial vessel may be on the Baltic horizon, according to a recent article in Maritime Propulsion.

As with most emerging technologies, the FutureShip design is significant in what it introduces rather than what it does.

FutureShip, a subsidiary of the class society Germanischer Lloyd, in conjunction with Scandlines, an established Baltic shipping company, has produced a passenger/freighter design with its usual share of eco-silliness. (For example, Flettner rotors provide “direct harvesting of the wind.”) But the concept of using onboard fuel cells to burn hydrogen produced by stationary wind turbines ashore is an ingenious one.

CREDIT: Germanischer Lloyd

The obvious question is if the wind can produce electricity that can be used to produce hydrogen, which can then be burned to achieve propulsion, all through a series of expensive machines, why can’t a mast and a sail produce the same result?

The answer is simple, though two-fold. Even modern technology can’t produce masts and sails the size necessary to propel large vessels, and the cost of labor in today’s market make the operation of a sailing freighter or tanker commercially impractical.

Putting aside the pollution caused by the production of the complex machinery necessary to utilize this energy source, the use of wind to create hydrogen could allow very large vessels, even those approaching the present 500,000-ton limits, to carry commercially practical quantities of cargo with little or no pollution. That’s something the “direct harvesting of wind” can’t do. But the cost of the technology would inevitably drive up the cost of transportation, and some people would die from the rising cost of food. (Even today, most of the world’s basic food stocks are carried on ships rather than grown locally.) However, we’ll all die later from pollution and global warming unless something is done.

It’s a Hobson’s choice, but it’s our choice.

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