Updated 22 Oct 2019

In Power

Between the engine and the final propulsor, three basic means are available to transmit the power from one to the other(s): direct mechanical drive, drive through a gearbox or electric power from a generator to an electric propulsion motor.

The simplest system is the direct mechanical drive of low-speed diesels to a fixed-pitch propeller and is found in the vast majority of ships. Low-speed engines rotate at a speed that matches the design speed of the propeller and so need no reduction in revolutions, unlike medium- and high-speed engines with mechanical drives.

In a low-speed situation, the propeller is connected to the engine flywheel by the propeller shaft and an intermediate shaft with usually a damper to reduce vibration. Bearings at various points along the propeller shaft help maintain alignment and prevent the shaft whipping. At its aft end, the shaft passes through the stern tube and out of the vessel where the propeller is attached. Classification rules require propeller shafts to be withdrawn for inspection at regular intervals as deformation can have disastrous consequences. Modern ship design with engines aft also means shafts are shorter and stiffer than used to be the case.

This makes correct alignment critical otherwise damage to bearings and fatigue of the shaft can result. The stern tube bearings are vital components in the propulsion system and traditionally have been oil-lubricated. Leakage from stern tube bearings is a pollution issue and to overcome it manufacturers have come up with some ingenious designs including versions lubricated by seawater rather than oil.

The issue of shaft seal leakage is addressed in the ShipInsight Environmental Technology Guide especially as it relates to both MARPOL and the US VGP system. Early in 2013, Lloyd’s Register introduced new rules for water-lubricated propeller shaft bearings. If certain monitoring requirements are met, LR will give the ship owner the SCM (Screwshaft Condition Monitoring) notation allowing no shaft withdrawal for 18 years. This puts the use of water-lubricated propeller shaft bearings for commercial ships in the same envelope as oil-lubricated propeller shaft lines.

Gearboxes for higher speed systems

In any mechanical drive involving a higher-revving engine, a reduction gearbox will be needed to ensure that the final drive rotates at a speed suited to the propeller. In a simple layout, the gearbox will be installed between a single engine and the propeller with the drive otherwise being similar to that of a two-stroke engine.

Where multiple engines are installed, the gearbox arrangement will need to be more complex to deal with inputs from two engines. Clutches will allow the drive to come from one or both engines as required. Incorporating gearboxes introduces vibration into the drive above that emanating from the engines themselves so flexible couplings and dampers are used to counteract this.

Gearboxes are often supplied by the engine maker as part of a package but there are also independent gearbox makers whose products may be specified by customers or the yard. Reintjes, Flender (part of the Siemens group) and ZF are well known names, as is Renk in which MAN Energy Solutions has a majority stake. Vulkan and Geislinger Couplings are probably the most well-known couplings makers but are not the only players in the market.

While two-stroke engines are invariably linked to conventional propellers, the same is not true of medium- and high-speed engines. Certainly the majority of ships employing faster-revving engines are also propelled by propellers, but some make use of alternatives. For example, pods and thrusters are found in both mechanical and electric drive versions. In a mechanical drive, the shaft from the gearbox will connect to another gear system transferring the drive to the propeller of the pod or thruster. Waterjets are a further option employed in a small number of fast ferries.

Diesel-Electric systems


In a diesel-electric propulsion system the need for direct mechanical connections to propellers and gearboxes is removed and replaced by cable connections allowing for much more flexibility in location of the various components. Since these systems commonly involve multiple engines, it is usual for them to be split over two or more engine rooms that in modern ships are isolated from one and another, conferring redundancy in the case of one engine room being put out of action by some cause. The multiple engine set-up also means that each engine can be smaller in size and therefore the requirement for a very large space to accommodate a single engine is removed allowing designers more freedom.

Electric drive is not a new invention by any means even though the number of ships employing it is increasing at an accelerating pace. Whether the electricity is produced by turbine or a diesel generator is immaterial as regards its distribution to the propulsors.

In a typical system, the electric power is routed through a switchboard, a transformer, a frequency converter and finally to the propulsion motor. The propulsion motor may be a separate component of the transmission or it may be incorporated into the propulsor as is done with pods and some thrusters. Beyond the propulsion motor, the drive may be mechanical and may be taken direct to the propeller or via a gearbox if the motor speed is high. In some cases, the speed of the motor is managed and the final drive may be connected directly on the propulsion motor shaft.

There are power losses associated with each of these steps making diesel-electric slightly less efficient than a mechanical drive when all engines are operating at optimum load. However, the system is more flexible when power demand is lower as one or more engines can be taken offline leaving the remainder to operate at maximum efficiency. For this reason, diesel-electric systems are most common in ships with widely varying power demand, such as offshore vessels and cruise ships.

Managing electric drives

A power management system is needed to start and stop gensets and alternators according to the network load and the online alternator capacity. The power management system is a vital part of a diesel-electric system and must monitor and anticipate changes in demand. This involves bringing in an additional alternator if the available power (the installed power of all connected alternators less the current load) drops below a preset limit.

This triggers a timer and if the available power stays below the limit for a certain time period the next genset alternator in sequence is started. It also blocks heavy consumers from starting or sheds unnecessary or low-priority consumers if not enough power is available, in order to avoid unstable situations.

Class rules allow gensets/alternators only 45 seconds for starting, synchronising and beginning to share load. It is always a challenge for the power management system to anticipate the situation in advance and to start gensets/alternators before consumers draw from the network and overload the engines. Overloading an engine will soon decrease the speed/frequency with the danger of motoring the engine, as the flow of power will be altered from network to alternator (reverse power). The electric protection system must therefore disconnect the affected alternator from the network.

An overload situation is always a critical situation for the vessel and a blackout must be avoided.

DC systems

Electric propulsion systems that include many variable frequency drives can provide significant benefits but by drawing current in a non-linear or non-sinusoidal manner can introduce excessive levels of both current and voltage harmonics. Harmonic distortion in diesel-electric systems is a problem mostly associated with AC distribution.

One alternative to an AC system is ABB’s Onboard DC Grid concept, which is a reworked and distributed multidrive system where distributed rectifiers are eliminated. It merges the various DC links around the vessel and distributes power through a single 1,000V DC circuit, thereby eliminating the need for main AC switchboards, distribution rectifiers and converter transformers.

All electric power generated is fed either directly or via a rectifier into a common DC bus that distributes the electrical energy to the onboard consumers. Each main consumer is then fed by a separate inverter unit.

As well as the ABB system described above other similar technologies include Wärtsilä’s LLC (low loss concept), Siemen’s Bluedrive PlusC, Norwegian Electric Systems’ (NES) Quadro Drive variable frequency drive system and MAN Energy Solutions’ EPROX (electric propulsion excellence).

Hybrid systems without batteries

There are various definitions of what constitutes a hybrid propulsion system with the term now most commonly applied to one in which a battery is included alongside some other power source. A more conventional definition would be one in which various engine, drive type and fuel options are recognised. Examples of this include Combined Diesel and Gas (CODAG), Combined Diesel-Electric and Diesel (CODED) along with several other acronyms.

In a CODED system, the combination of mechanical power, delivered by diesel engines, and electrical power, provided by variable-speed electric motors, delivers propulsion power that assures the ship a broad operational capability, providing the right amount of power and torque to the propeller in each operation mode. By contrast, a typical CODAG propulsion system will be wholly mechanical with each of the diesel engines and gas turbines having its own gearbox and a further connecting gearbox where power from each source can be combined and transmitted to the propellers.

Magnetic drive

Over the past few years permanent magnetic (PM) drive has appeared in some areas of ship machinery, notably in pumps and in rim-driven thrusters but there are other areas where PM technology can feature in the drive train. A Norwegian company, Inpower, has patented a design for a propulsion system employing permanent magnet drive, which it calls PhiDrive. The company was acquired in 2017 by another Norwegian engineering company, Bostek.

The PhiDrive is a development of diesel electric that uses a permanent magnet generator, which tends to be far smaller than conventional induction generators for the same power output. The power produced is transferred directly to the propulsion motors without the need for frequency convertors or transformers.

As well as being more compact, permanent magnet units generally have higher efficiencies than either induction motors or standard synchronous generators since the rotor windings are substituted with magnets that are able to produce the required flux without the presence of copper losses.

The uses of PM technology can include propulsion motors, generators and, as already mentioned, drive systems for thrusters. While PM is a relatively new development in marine, it is a mature technology in many other industries and greater use will allow additional markets for some newcomers to the marine sector. One such is Japan-based Yasakawa Group which plans to grow its marine business through a new Finnish subsidiary called Switch.

Related Articles
The Journal

Published every February the journal is now recognised as the highest quality publication that covers all aspects of maritime technology and regulation and a must read for the industry.

More Details