Maritime Modernization: Shipping Industry Gets Sustainable Overhaul0

Michael Kanellos | Wed Jan 4 2012 |

Lena Lindblad doesn’t want to kill barnacles. She just wants to scare them.

Lindblad, the R&D Manager at Sweden-based iTech, discovered a few years ago that a dog tranquilizer called Medetomidine causes barnacles to go into overdrive. Just why exactly would this matter to a company like iTech?

Because the drag caused by barnacles and other creatures can cut the fuel efficiency of tankers by 50 percent, Lindblad suspected that mixing Medetomidine into marine paint would dramatically cut diesel consumption around the world. The company is currently testing the paint in South Korea, China, and other nations.

If shipping were a nation, it would be the sixth largest emitter.

If this approach proves valid, Medetomidine could greatly help tankers become more sustainable, in more ways than one.

Lacing paint with the tranquilizer also eliminates the need for copper, which—besides being expensive—is toxic to many marine creatures. What’s more, copper paint will soon be banned in many ports in the Pacific.

Shipping: The dirty truth

Shipping is one of the dirtiest industries on the planet. It accounts for approximately 3.3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). If shipping were a nation, it would be the sixth largest emitter, sandwiched between Japan and Germany.

But don’t blame the captain; transporting goods is a natural consequence of modern life.

With over 85 percent of the world’s cargo carried by ships, it’s safe to assume that nearly every component inside the cell phone, tablet, or computer you’re using right now has probably traveled by sea.

And while over 100,000 ships weighing in at over 100 tons ply the waves each year, shipping still remains more efficient than many other means of carrying cargo.

The challenge the industry faces now, however, is to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gases without crimping the galloping growth in world trade.

Like Lindblad, policy makers, entrepreneurs, and business model experts have quietly begun to devise innovative ways to make efficiency pay.

(Carbon) Free shipping

The Carbon War Room, a nonprofit founded by solar entrepreneur Jigar Shah and Sir Richard Branson, is persuading port owners and cities to encourage efficiency through incentives. The organization has created a website that provides efficiency ratings for over 60,000 ships so that retailers, insurers, and others can select shippers that have committed to improving their sustainability.

Slow steaming, or going slow, can also dramatically help to save fuel. Maersk, the Danish shipping giant, saved $300 million on diesel alone through slow steaming.

Another idea growing in popularity: strategic loading and unloading via computational models to cut time in port.

By 2050, the IMO estimates that ships could be more than two times as efficient as they are today and emit 35 – 40 percent less greenhouse gases due to regulations and other factors. A 30 percent boost in efficiency could save some $70 billion in fuel costs a year, adds Alisdair Pettigrew of the Carbon War Room.

A change in tides

Many segments of the industry have already begun to take steps in the right direction, including swapping diesel for liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a fuel.

“LNG is clean, it’s cheap, and we have a lot of it,” says Rob Almeida, Editor of gCaptain, one of the leading web sites on shipping.

Others, meanwhile, are trying to clean up the ports themselves. The Regen flywheel from Vycon Energy functions like the regenerative braking system on a Toyota Prius or Fisker Karma: it harvests kinetic energy (movement) and converts it into electricity.

Efficiency measures pay for themselves over time, advocates note; it’s the upfront costs that tend to kill well-intentioned efforts.

The Regen harvests the energy of cargo containers being lowered into a hold or onto the dock. A 30-ton shipping container can generate about 200 kilowatts of power simply by obeying the laws of gravity, according to Louis Romo, Vice President of Sales.

Fancy a ship with a hat? Advanced Cleanup Technologies has created a product that captures 90 percent of particulate matter from smokestacks. More exotic technologies—kites designed to let cargo ships surf on the waves (think kiteboarding but with a 400 ton ship), bubble generators that cut a path in the water, and solar ships—are on drawing boards or in testing.

So what could hold it up? Like many sustainable business efforts, money remains a perpetual problem. Efficiency measures pay for themselves over time, advocates note; it’s the upfront costs that tend to kill well-intentioned efforts.

Inertia, too, must be overcome. Until September 11, 2001, ports tended to be low-tech affairs, according to Bill Lyte. Lyte is trying to modernize harbors in Los Angeles with technology through organizations like Technoplex and the Harbor Association of Industry and Commerce.

But the economics, and the potential gains, remain compelling. The International Chamber of Shipping at the recent UN Climate Change Conference in South Africa recently says it would consider a $100 billion fund to help emerging nations retrofit their ports.

Funding or not, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the shipping industry is in for some major changes.

“There is no avoiding it. This is the biggest thing on the horizon,” says Almeida.