Are concept ships going anywhere?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

06 December 2018

Yesterday, ShipInsight carried a news article about Maersk’s plans for the future and its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. In announcing its vision Maersk said that to achieve its goal, carbon neutral vessels must be commercially viable by 2030, and an acceleration in new innovations and adaption of new technology is required.

To accompany its announcement, Maersk also issued a short 18 sec video which at first promised to expand on possibilities but beyond a brief image of what might be a ship of the future emerging from a shed gave few details. Perhaps that is because Maersk realises that while there are several ideas that could be incorporated in a future ship, the revolutionary technology that is needed has yet to emerge.

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No one would argue that Maersk is not at the front of the pack when developing new vessels and looking at other technologies. In the container sector in particular, the Danish company is the one that others follow even if there are reservations over the direction of travel. Maersk did say that given the 20-25-year life time of a vessel, it is now time to join forces and start developing the new type of vessels that will be crossing the seas in 2050. It also stressed that the next 5-10 years are going to be crucial in this regard.

A few weeks prior to Maersk’s announcement, Japanese operator NYK unveiled a concept ship under the name NYK SUPER ECO SHIP 2050. This was a futuristic PCTC developed in partnership with Finnish engineering specialist Elomatic. There were ambitious visions of the future with the design promising a complete elimination of CO2 emissions mainly by use of fuel cells, solar power, batteries, energy saving measures and flapping foils inspired by dolphins to replace less efficient traditional propellers as well as lightweight materials used in the construction.

Around ten years ago, the same team had taken part in a project known as SUPER ECO SHIP 2030. The vessel in that case was a container ship also making use of fuels cells, light weight construction and solar panels built into a housing for the deck cargo. Sails would also be an option for such a vessel.

Those who can remember even further back to 2005 will remember a concept vessel very similar to both NYK projects. That concept was the Wallenius Wilhelmsen E/S Orcelle. It too was a PCTC with fuel cells, batteries, flapping propulsors, sails and solar panels. Because of the timescale need for some technologies to come to maturity, WW said at the time that it never expected that the Orcelle as then configured would ever be built but would serve as a beacon for future innovations the company intended to introduce.

The flapping propulsors on the WW ship would be supplementary with the main propulsion being provided by twin pods. The concept assumed that future fuel cell technology would allow for a 10,000kW power plant so that two 4,000kW pods would be installed. When announcing the Orcelle project, WW acknowledged that the hydrogen required for the fuel cells could not be produced in situ using the power from the solar panels or batteries because the power needed would be more than the hydrogen produced could provide.

The fact that the power needed to produce hydrogen and to liquefy it is more than the energy content of the hydrogen produced could negate the environmental friendliness claimed for fuel cells. That fact is sometimes voiced by those who see fuels cells as merely moving the pollution from the ship to shore. On the other hand, if the power used comes from renewable sources then hydrogen can provide the means to decarbonise shipping.

In its Orelle project, WW acknowledged that time will be needed for technologies to mature but hoped that such a ship would be possible by 2025. It is interesting to recall that in 2005, problems with some of the new podded propulsion systems were being experienced by pioneering cruise lines and it would take some time before all of those issues would be resolved. Seven years away from the 2025 date mentioned, pods are no longer considered as pioneering technologies but then it must be remembered that the very first Azipod was installed in 1990 – some fifteen years before the Orcelle project was commenced.

In the light of Maersk’s comments that the next five to ten years will be crucial in developing the technologies needed, it is worth noting that over the last 13 years that concept ships have focussed on new technologies most of those are little nearer commercialisation now than they were in 2005. Batteries have probably progressed further and faster than any of the others but as Maersk is right to point out, they are of little use as the main source of power for deep sea ships.

Concept ships do provide some interesting ideas for the future but the fact that the development of showcased technologies in almost a decade and half has not really produced any of the rapid advancements necessary, serves as a timely reminder that ambitious targets for decarbonising shipping may be out of reach in the time scales envisaged.

That is not to say that innovative technologies should be ignored or dismissed but the difficulty in scaling technologies to the extent needed for moving thousands of tonnes of cargo under harsh environmental conditions must not be underestimated.