Nanotechnology in the Shipping Industry


While metals will remain the dominant force for ship structures, there will be an opportunity to refine their characteristics through what is known as microscale or nano-scale manipulation. One nano-meter (nm) is equal to one thousand millionth of one meter. For comparison, a human red blood cell is around 7,000 nm wide.

As the any ship is a self-sustained unit in respect makes it prudent that almost all parts of the ship is expected to be covered by the applications of nanotechnology in future. However, of these applications are in the conception stage and therefore are referred to as potential applications.

For example, the addition of magnesium or calcium nano-particles could strengthen welds, while a new anti-corrosion coating will be used to better protect vessels. Nanotechnology is poised to revolutionise the fields of material science, physics and mechanical engineering. This technology will have many potential applications in the maritime environment.

Shipping companies may also pursue an objective to improve sustainability and fuel economy by using advanced high-strength steel, aluminium, glass fibre and carbon-fibre composites. The Global Marine Technology Trends (GMTT) 2030 also covers the possibility of self-repairing materials which can be used in ship-building.

Nanoscience is the study of manipulation of materials in their atomic, molecular and macro-molecular scales. Their properties can differ significantly from those at a larger scale. By controlling shape and size at the nanometer scale, nanotechnology offers effective variation in design, characterisation, production and application of structures.

Nanotechnology offers an array of (modified) material which gives phenomenal strength by nano-structuring the materials. This can be achieved by incorporation of composites in ship building. At least two technology implementations will lead to the renaissance of commercial shipping in 2030 with a significant impact on ship system design and ship operation.

The first technology originates from within the industry, as intense competition encourages technology sophistication and operational efficiency in order to gain commercial advantages.

The second is derived from other sectors, as maturing technology is ripe for transfer to ship system design and operation to enhance safety, as well as financial and commercial performance.

While the first sector covers propulsion and powering, ship building and smart ships, the second includes sensors, robotics, big data analytics, advanced materials, and communications.

Nano Aluminium Composite: US-based researchers have found that usage of advanced nanoscience in the processing of aluminium results in superior material for tough and light applications.

The process, ‘cryomilling’, involves introducing nano aluminium in the standard aluminium. Cryomilling forms nanoscale aluminium oxide and nitride particles, which makes the material stronger and stabilises its microscopic orientation and structure.

Carbon Nanotubes: This is one of the most talked about materials with a nanostructured base. The carbon nanotube is one sixth the weight of steel but several times the strength and carries exceptional thermal conductivity comparable to the purest form of diamonds.

These can be impregnated into polymers for explosion proof structures, safety harnesses and electromagnetic shielding. These can be used for various riggings and load bearing applications.

Ultra Violet Resistant Coatings: The photochemical degradation caused by ultra violet(UV) rays is a common mode of failure of most of the coating systems. This causes the oxidation and decomposition of polymer films along with inorganic or organic pigments which leads to discoloration and cracking of paint films. Using nano particles like titania or zinc oxide (ZnO) have shown improved UV resistance in the coatings.

The trend with all metallic, ceramic, polymeric and composite materials is to achieve improved capabilities such as strength, toughness, durability and other useful functionalities by designing it at the nano-scale and harnessing those properties in large structures.

The marine environment is one of the harshest environments any structure could be subjected to in its lifecycle. Corrosion poses a daunting challenge for all marine structures. It is therefore imperative that extensive research and development goes into ever improved protective coatings for marine structures.

Nanotechnology promises a new era in protective coating that is named nanocoating. The structure and properties of advanced materials at the nano-scale is well researched, and this is leading to the challenge of manufacturing advanced materials to realise capabilities in bulk structures.

Desirable functionality, such as environmental sensing, self-cleaning, self-healing, enhanced electrical conductance and shape modification, is anticipated through the development of nano-materials, and, in turn, will deliver performance benefits in the commercial shipping, naval and ocean space industries.

Nano Battery System: The availability of uninterruptible power supply (UPS) on naval ships is a vital requirement. In order to ensure UPS, two generators are kept online to ensure uninterrupted power supply. Research is being undertaken in the United States to design a large-scale nano lithium titanate military battery system. In case the primary generator fails, this nano battery system is estimated to provide UPS till a secondary generator comes online.

The applications of nanotechnology are futuristic concepts. These have potential maritime applications whenever they materialise. These concepts cannot be compared with existing technology as these are in infancy stages and no comparable alternatives exist for self-healing materials, nano-robots and all electric ships for meaningful comparison. The research and commercialisation of nanomaterials will continue to accelerate the production of large-scale structures with increasingly refined and reliable properties.

Sea News Feature, May 10