The World Never Thanks Naval Architects

Guest Blog by S. A. Shelley: For almost all of human history, trade has been facilitated by water borne craft. Mesopotamia? They had boats on the rivers and in the gulf. Egypt? Boats on the river. Rome? Boats hauling grain from Egypt to Rome. China?  The Chinese were sailing and trading along East Asia for thousands of years.  By the time of the Clipper ships, naval architects had mastered wind power such that a clipper ship could make a transatlantic voyage in about 12 days . A modern fossil-fueled container ship can make the same voyage in about 8 days.  By 2018 goods carried on ships amounted to nearly 11 billion tonnes with some economists estimating that between 80% to 90% of all goods produced globally travel by ships across some water at some stage of production.

Ships today tend to be powered by fossil fuels, and when looking at the amount of CO2 emitted per tonne of cargo moved per kilometer, ships are by far the most efficient way to move goods (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – CO2 Emissions by Various Transport Methods

The problem is that because there is so much world trade moved by ships, the shipping industry itself emits more C02 (around 3% of global emissions) and other pollutants (18%) than most countries. The European Union foresees the problem getting much worse by 2050, expecting CO2 emissions from shipping to increase by another 50% over current levels. This presents a problem as the world tries to limit and maybe even reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. The simple solution of course is to shut down global trade.

The other solution is to implement new technologies to make shipping less reliant upon fossil fuels. We’ve noted in a prior blog that Japan has started to build liquefied hydrogen carriers to transport hydrogen from Australia to Japan. Now, some shippers are starting to look at new ships to run on hydrogen fuel, both in combustible form and in fuel-cells. In spite of push back from LI-Ion proponents, hydrogen fuel makes a lot of technical and economic sense for big things that move slowly over vast distances. Things like ships, super yachts, trains and inter-city trucks. This is all good if the hydrogen is green hydrogen, sourced renewably.

Alternatively, some shippers are looking at returning to sail power. This might work well if customers will accept slower crossing times (from 8 to 12 days, for example).

But will this be enough?  There are over 40,000 registered ships plying the world’s seas, and many thousand more of dubious status hopping about from port to port. In some areas, ships that are 100 years old still trade (see note 1). Returning to the European Union estimate that CO2 emissions will increase 50% by 2050, then let’s assume that ship numbers will also have to increase by the same percentage. That means that by 2050, about 20,000 new ships will be navigating the seas in addition to the 40,000 registered ones now afloat. If we’re really serious about stopping all forms of CO2 emissions growth then we better start building nothing but hydrogen or wind powered vessels from here on at the rate of about 500 a year. Boom times for the shipyards that figure this out.

Vive l’Alberta Libre!

S.A.Shelley (see notes 2, 3, 4 and 5)


(1) I can confirm this because I’ve surveyed such vessels in my working life and I’ve had the adventure of actually sailing on such vessels in some of the more remote parts of the world

(2) Being a true Naval Architect, when I first moved to Houston, I was puzzled by some of the unorthodox offshore oil and gas engineering practices until I realized that those practices were a continuation of near-shore, coastal civil engineering practices that just followed the fields into deeper water.  

(3) In the movie Titanic, I cried when the ship sank.

(4) Recently, Germany had some delivery problems with their newest frigate design. The problems included being overweight with a permanent list upon delivery (not much different from oil and gas platforms at times). I’ve worked on and had the chance to inspect a lot of naval vessels from many different navies, and for a small stipend to a Swiss account, I’d be happy to tell folks which ships have similar problems, as well as problems with gearboxes, propellers and weapons systems. Other information about real vessel speeds and maneuvering capabilities can also be provided for a good bottle of whisky or two.

(5) There goes my security clearance.


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