Still dominating home electronics, lithium batteries are constantly pushing into new markets. Just nine years ago, the small batteries defied skeptics by making the jump from laptops to the revolutionary Energy Storage System of the Tesla Roadster.
As global EV sales grew, lithium batteries also started showing up in home storage, grid storage, and powering buses in smoggy mega-cities like Los Angeles, London, and Shanghi.
During the battery's next evolution, a lithium-powered ship (still in CGI) will deliver freight to ports around Norway for Yara International, Norway's largest chemical and fertilizer producer, which just announced it will build and float the world's first autonomous, battery-powered container ship by 2020.
Since Norway uses hydro to generate most of its electricity, the ship's short, emissions-free day-runs will be a milestone for a industry choking on carbon-intensive bunker fuel (read the press release).
Yara is especially important after the Paris agreement exempted two of the world's biggest CO2 emitters, global shipping and aviation, from oversight. Shipping throws off 18-30% of all the world's nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution and 9% of the sulphur oxide (SOx). Airborne, both chemicals cause 60,000 deaths a year as medical costs top $330bn treating lung and heart diseases (read the spec sheet).
Shortchanged in Paris
After Paris, many shippers worried their industry could derail the 1.5°C best-case scenario.
The Maersk Group, owner of the world’s largest containership fleet and a member of the Sustainable Shipping Institute, was disappointed. “Maersk acknowledges the need to regulate shipping," said John Kornerup Bang, its Advisor on Climate Change. GCaptain listened as Bang explained the complex issues that thwarted the negotiations, "We're ready to compete in a carbon constrained economy, (but) any future regulation needs to be global, flag neutral, and reward early movers.”
Essentially, no one could agree how to fairly link emissions to specific countries of origin, with so many ships registered in sketchy jurisdictions, all traveling to and refueling in different countries.
Unfortunately, 90% of world trade travels by sea, producing 2.2% of global CO2 emissions every year. As shipping grows along with the global middle class, analysts predict that the Paris failure means emissions could balloon to 17% by 2050. Why so drastic? According to a Guardian article from 2009, data from industry insiders showed that the 100,000 horsepower engines of:
15 of the world's biggest ships emit as much pollution as 760m cars.
Magnify that by 6000 of the largest container ships and 85,000 smaller cargo ships and it's pretty much game over.
Emission control zones
Several months after Paris, the airlines grudgingly agreed to offset emissions by buying carbon credits, but the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) dithered and decided to wait until 2020 before capping sulphur in bunker fuel at 0.5%, down from levels as high as 3.5%.
So after a long two and a half year wait, the sulfur burned by the world’s cargo ships will be cut down 86 percent.
Refusing to wait until 2020, the US, the EU and China, which has seven of the world's most polluted container ports, set up their won 200 mile Emission Control Zones (ECZs). Now, whenever docked ships run their engines for power in port, they're using low 0.5% sulfur fuel.
So although CO2 emissions still get a pass, stringent standards have forced shippers to decide whether to install scrubbers or consider newer fuels and technologies.
Emitting no NOx or SOx, drop-in biodiesel provides up to 90 percent fewer CO2 emissions than bunker fuel. By also eliminating the cost of infrastructure retrofits, the alt-fuel has attracted a lot of attention.
Maersk conducted a biofuel trial on the Maersk Kalmar, which used 35,000 gallons of fuel a day. Even though the test was considered a success, high feedstock costs and an unreliable supply chain made the biofuel too impractical to be deployed throughout a 600 ship fleet.
About the same time, after the war in Iraq had made energy reform a strategic imperative, the Navy created the Green Fleet, an alt-fuel showcase where a 50/50 blend of chicken fat and conventional diesel powered two destroyers and a cruiser for two days during month-long maneuvers off Hawaii. Using 450,000 gallons of biofuel — at a cost of $12 million — it was the largest single purchase of biofuel.
Lately, the Navy's interest in the Great Green Fleet has waned. Last year, only three ships were deployed. Their engines were powered by a thin 10 percent blend of rendered beef fat and 90 percent standard diesel.
Nevertheless, the Navy still procured 80 million gallons for 2016. And it was still expensive. The Pentagon managed to pay $2.05 a gallon — after generous government subsidies — which got the cost close to standard diesel.
LNG floods the zone
Since infrastructure plays of major part in a fuel's success, the globalization of LNG promises the same ubiquity as bunker oil. It has already powered LNG carriers on the boil off.
Still, while LNG is an excellent technology for reducing SOx and NOx emissions, it only reduces CO2 by about 20 percent over bunker fuel. If there is a one percent methane slip, the GHG reduction could be a wash.
Nevertheless, by 2015 there were already 63 small LNG-fueled vessels operating in the world. Next year, Sovcomflot, Russia’s biggest oil tanker operator, will commission the world's first oil tankers that run on LNG. The Aframax ships will transport 600,000 barrels of oil through Baltic Sea to be refined in the the port of Rotterdam.
Analysts predict that the number of LNG-fueled ships will more than double to 200 by 2020 from 77 last year, but that's a blip in the global fleet.
But that will still ramp up LNG bunkering demand to 1 million tons in three years and as much as 5 million to 7 million tons by 2025.
While new the Russian ships will modestly help ease the glut, they won’t soak up the excess. Ultimately, Bloomberg reports, LNG marine fuel will make up less than 2 percent of total demand by 2025.
Yara goes autonomous
YARA's battery-powered ship offers completely emissionless shipping.
It reduces NOx and CO2 two ways. First, 40,000 truck deliveries stop once the ship starts hauling containers from its Porsgrunn plant to the port cities of Brevik and Larvik about 12 miles away down the coast. From there the products are shipped around the world. "By changing to the sea, Yara will reduce road noise and traffic congestion," said Yara CEO Svein Tore Holsether.
While in port, the ship will reduce even more NOx emissions, because it won't have to burn bunker fuel. Ultimately, the switch to batteries should cut about 675 tons of CO2 a year.
After the ship is delivered in 2018, it will be manned by a small crew for the shake down cruises. Afterwards, if those are successful, remote operation will begin in 2019, followed by fully autonomous mode in 2020.
During remote or autonomous operation, thousands of sensors, radar and lidar will send data to three satellite-linked centers, making every aspect of the operation transparent.
The YARA battery-powered ship should create huge changes in the shipping industry. Having land-based technicians manage ships remotely will completely disrupt the operation of global supply chains, creating new services, along with more-efficient ways to lease and pool vessels. Ultimately, an online marketplace for cargo delivery by sea is not far behind.