16th December 2017

How is the maritime sector mirroring the automotive in reducing emissions, becoming more efficient and lessening its environmental impact in other ways?

Through our activities in providing services and solutions to car and van fleets small and large throughout the UK and other parts of the world, fuel efficiency, emissions and connected technology are key focuses, with telematics hardware and software along with bolstered training efforts and alternative powertrains helping to change driver behaviour in ways that also benefit the planet. Industries and sectors have long shared knowledge, technology and other advancements, and having recently taken a look at how aviation companies are increasingly turning to technologies proven in road-going vehicles, we now explore the maritime scene.

Hybrid technology is increasingly being adopted by private motorists and fleets alike, the Honda Civic and Insight, Lexus GS and RX and Toyota Prius etched in most people’s minds as the main instigators. Around the same time as the original Prius1 started to gain relative popularity in the mid-noughties, a company in the U.S called Foss Maritime announced plans to produce the world’s first true hybrid tug boat2.

One of the project’s chief aims was to reduce not only CO2 but also harmful nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, which have both come to the fore over the last couple of years in the automotive sphere. Generating a whopping total power output of 5,000 horsepower, which is 3-to-4 times that of a Bugatti Chiron, the Foss tug’s hybrid setup incorporated two 670bhp battery packs and a pair of 335bhp generators in the engine room, along with additional batteries and diesel units. The vessel’s management system jiggled power sources around depending on various parameters, and idling was done courtesy of electricity, reducing CO2 and sulphur emissions while boosting fuel economy. Just like hybrid cars, the tug was also much quieter in its operation.

The U.S Navy got in on the hybrid act in 2007 and Captain Bob Kopas, commander of Makin Island, a hybrid amphibious assault ship, described it as being “like a big hybrid car”, while an independent naval analyst called it a “watershed for the Navy, a generation change.” Combining gas turbines with auxiliary motors that ran off the vessel’s electrical grid, its green propulsion system enabled 900,000 gallons of fuel worth over $2 million to be saved, Makin Island’s electric motors powering her for 75% of the time.

Battery technology is improving all the time and in 2012 Foss built its second hybrid tug3 that featured lighter and more powerful lithium polymer batteries made by Corvus, rather than the 126 lead-acid batteries used formerly. The more modern batteries took up less space, helping increase the tug’s overall efficiency, and as well as boasting faster recharging times, they allowed the tug to operate at strong power levels even when battery charge had dropped to a third.

That same year, a Glasgow shipyard started building diesel-electric hybrid roll-on/roll-off ferries, funded by the Scottish government and technology organisations8. Whereas most of the world’s other hybrid vessels had remained confined to harbours and bays, this trio of low-carbon hybrid ferries in Scotland took to the seas and also serviced routes on the Clyde9 and around the Hebrides10.

Mega-yachts, which typically each burn over 130 gallons of fuel every hour even when mainly idling, were also introduced to the green benefits of hybrid when Savannah11, a Dutch-built yacht, was launched. Measuring over 270 feet long, it would’ve been forgivable for assuming that she was powered solely by diesel like many other super-yachts, but the vessel’s single diesel engine was mated to a trio of diesel-electric generators plus giant lithium-ion batteries in a cluster formation, capable of outputting a combined 1 million watts. Anyone luxuriating in Savannah’s underwater lounge, 29ft swimming pool or cinema may have felt a degree of comfort knowing that she was 30% more fuel-efficient than other similar yachts.

Electric ships were first discussed to a major degree in 2005 with comprehensive research published by the University of Texas at Austin, partly funded by the Office of Naval Research. The project’s virtual electric ship research and development center built on earlier studies into power train and distribution, controls, thermal management, actuators and other components. The team concluded that propulsion motors presented the best weight-saving opportunities whereas downsizing generators would have little effect, and that efficiency posed the greatest potential area of gain6.

Unsurprisingly modest in their sizes and abilities, electric boats can be traced back to the mid-1800s, though, when a German inventor developed a vessel that carried 14 passengers at 3 miles an hour. London’s iconic River Thames saw electric battery-powered boats carry out leisure duties late in the century, operating for as long as six hours. Petrol and diesel then became dominant and although a plethora of electric vessels were still produced on a small scale since that time7, the general consensus was that the technology was prohibitively expensive, preventing it becoming mainstream. Indeed, the maritime sector sounds rather like the automotive in this regard – until now.

“The future of shipping is, without a doubt, silent and emission free”, commented Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten, ahead of a pair of 600-passenger expedition cruise ships being launched, said to be the first hybrid vessels to enter this segment of the maritime market12. With technology from Rolls-Royce, one of the two ships is described as ‘fully fledged’ with the ability to run on electric power for long periods of time and over vast distances, making ‘extended electric sailing’ a reality.

The headline “Propulsion: ‘The future is electric’” given to Rebecca Moore’s article on the Passenger Ship Technology website echoes many headlines surrounding the automotive industry in recent years13. Not allowing Norway to steal the show, America is also busy developing and launching similarly large cruise vessels powered by cutting edge and environmentally friendly technology, with BAE Systems, Cummins and, once again, Corvus, providing much of the hardware.

Fully electric cargo ships will gradually start replacing the constant stream of rather polluting commercial vessels that currently zigzag in and out of the world’s ports, with shipbuilders in China having just launched a 230ft, 2,000 metric tons all-electric ship. Just like Tesla’s recently publicised electric truck, this cutting-edge cargo ship from Guangzhou will help kick-start a freight revolution. Its 2,500kW battery is comparable to the combined power from 24 Tesla Model S P100d electric cars. Cargo vessels typically take quite a while to unload and reload, but the Chinese pioneer’s battery takes just two hours to be recharged. Cruising on the Pearl River at around 8mph and ironically assigned to coal-transporting duties, the ship will have a range of roughly 50 miles.

Back to Scandinavia, though, and Viking Line and Norsepower have teamed up to demonstrate how a third ingredient can be added to the hybrid recipe, renewable wind power and auxiliary propulsion technology being used to slash carbon emissions from liquefied natural gas (LNG) vessels.

When it comes to cars, it’s not financially feasible to convert existing vehicles from relying on internal combustion engines over to utilising hybrid technology. However, such ‘retrofitting’ is possible and being increasingly opted for on the water. Finland’s oldest ferry has been converted to run on electricity14, and a vessel in Taiwan called Ferry Happiness has been retrofitted with an advanced new propulsion system, to cite just two from plentiful examples.

Big Data is a term we often refer to in our automotive articles and, while predictive analytics is aiding fleets to be more efficient at servicing their vehicles and ultimately keeping everyone safer, the maritime industry is also now applying the same principles to vessel maintenance. Remote monitoring of machinery is said to reduce costs by as much as 50% and the connecting of off and on-shore systems is enabling data scientists to help organisations make the best use of their assets.

The interest of anyone who has been glued to the BBC’s superb Blue Planet II series on Sunday nights recently may be piqued with the news that the world’s first hybrid fish farm processing vessel is expected to be delivered to Norway in summer 2018 once it has been built in Spain16.

Autonomous cars have regularly made the news this year and such a vision is once again being applied to the world’s waters, where a strong business case is being formed for the introduction of captain-less vessels. Rolls-Royce is once again in the picture having significantly contributed alongside Svitzer to the world’s first successful trial of an automated commercial vessel, which took place in Copenhagen harbour17. From mining companies and major Chinese shipping lines to subsea exploration operators and even passenger vessels, autonomous boats are fast becoming technologically achievable just like their automotive counterparts. The exact same concerns over job losses, insurance and safety implications are being mooted, and the UK has even launched an industry code of practice18 for autonomous vessels, showing how serious it’s all becoming.

Daily cruise ship emissions reportedly equate to that of around one million cars, and while shipping presently accounts for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, analysts have calculated that if the industry was a country, it would represent the world’s seventh most culpable emitter19.

Although the technologies we’ve looked at can’t improve the awful problem of plastics and other pollution blighting the world’s seas, it will certainly help make all manner of vessels much less polluting, more efficient to run and also quieter – which are, of course, all traits of hybrid cars.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota_Prius
2. https://newatlas.com/go/7023/
3. http://www.professionalmariner.com/September-2012/Fosss-second-hybrid-tugboat-employs-new-more-powerful-lithium-polymer-batteries/
4. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-navy-goes-green-new-hybrid-ship-2009sep15-htmlstory.html
5. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/4182636_Electric_ship_power_system_-_research_at_the_University_of_Texas_at_Austin
6. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert_Hebner/publication/4182636_Electric_ship_power_system_-_research_at_the_University_of_Texas_at_Austin/links/0046352683507da31b000000/Electric-ship-power-system-research-at-the-University-of-Texas-at-Austin.pdf
7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_boat
8. https://www.wired.com/2012/03/new-diesel-electric-hybrid-ferries-are-a-seagoing-first/
9. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-35065151
10. https://www.calmac.co.uk/press/ferry-launch
11. https://www.cnbc.com/2015/01/26/worlds-first-hybrid-megayacht-launches.html
12. https://www.cruiseindustrynews.com/cruise-news/15765-new-hurtigruten-ships-will-be-first-hybrid-cruise-ships.html
13. http://www.passengership.info/news/view,propulsion-the-future-is-electric_47102.htm
† http://www.greenmatters.com/news/2017/12/08/Z1TotQc/china-electric-ship
14. https://qz.com/1039133/the-electric-revolution-is-coming-to-freighters-and-cruise-ships/
15. http://www.ship-technology.com/features/featurehybrid-vessels-here-to-stay-or-fleeting-trend-5769261/
16. http://corvusenergy.com/corvus-energy-to-power-industrys-first-hybrid-fish-farm-processing-vessel/#
17. https://www.raconteur.net/business/unmanned-ships-set-to-sail-the-seas
18. http://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/uk-launches-industry-code-of-practice-for-autonomous-vessels/
19. http://www.euractiv.com/section/air-pollution/news/daily-emissions-of-cruise-ships-same-as-one-million-cars/