Is the fight on for future fuel?

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With the latest LNG powered ships making bold statements in terms of operational delivery and environmental credentials, the race is on to determine the fuel of the future. Will it be carbon fuels? Will it be a hybrid, all electric or gas? The answers depend on those you talk to but the truth is none of us really know.

The IMO’s first step in this ‘fight’ was the sulphur 2020 cap and yet the warning shots about future maritime fuel had been sounded long before that decision was made. The vision of an all-electric ship goes back more than a century and there are still very few all-electric ships in operation in comparison to carbon-fuelled vessels. There have been for a few years some all-electric ferries and in 2017 the Chinese launched a 70.5 meters long, 13.9 meters wide, 4.5 meters deep, 3.3 meters draft design coal carrier with a reputed cargo capacity of 2,000 tons. Now this may only have a current reported range of some 50 miles due to the limitation of its batteries but like future proposed autonomous vessels, it will certainly be suitable for short-sea and coastal operations.

There has been a century of development of electric ships but what constitutes a fully electric vessel is that the machinery for generating power and the machinery for propelling the ship are not mechanically connected. But let’s not get bogged down in just electric operation: there are alternatives and how many of us can remember the NS Savannah? This was the 1959 nuclear-powered passenger/cargo ship that according to calculations cost around £300 million at current rates. Today we have nuclear powered naval vessels and icebreakers but it seems unlikely we will have commercial nuclear vessels in the future.

The Savannah could handle 8,500 tons of cargo but loading it proved to be difficult and she appeared as an advanced breakbulk ship that was built just as the industry was starting to become container led. There was also the issue of dealing with nuclear waste. So alternatives need to be found and the IMO’s sulphur cap has prompted renewed interest in electric and LNG which is already a proven and available commercial solution. Price is a big factor here along with its environmental credentials but it does seem that the conventional oil-based fuels will remain as the leading option for most ships in the near future.

While the deadline for the 2020 IMO sulphur cap draws ever closer, the question still remains, how far into the future are we now looking – and how hard?

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