Breaking the Maritime Shipping Impasse

Two new laws in California have degraded the air quality in the Los Angeles area. One is Assembly Bill 5 and a new California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulation banning older diesel trucks from operating in the state. Assembly Bill 5 has basically outlawed independent truckers from hauling freight, thereby reducing the total number of trucks operating in the state. This, combined with the banning of the older diesel trucks, has created a supply chain backlog. leaving large container vessels either at anchor or steaming in lazy circles offshore because the anchorages are too crowded to safely anchor there. While at anchor or underway, these ships must run their engines to turn generators to power and maintain vital shipboard systems, and doing so these ships emit huge quantities of oxides of Nitrogen (NOx), oxides of Sulfur (SOx), particulate pollution, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). The offshore sea breezes carry this polluted air into the Los Angeles basin, adding to an already significantly polluted air shed. A recent study published by the Journal of Cardiovascular Research concluded that globally, poor air quality contributes to over eight million deaths a year. A significant contributor to the poor air quality is the maritime shipping industry. It is a well-documented fact that maritime shipping is the largest polluter in the transportation sector of industry. There are calculations that estimate just fifteen of the world’s largest container vessels exceed the emissions from the world’s 750 million vehicles.

New international regulations are attempting to curb emissions from the maritime industry and, through international treaties, are creating Emissions Control Areas. Currently, the coastlines of the United States are under these controls, as is the entire Baltic Sea (one of the busiest sea lanes in the world). The maritime industry is struggling to meet these new regulations but the solutions are expensive and inelegant. Shipowners either have to employ the use of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) or exotic fuels to meet the emissions standards adding to shipping costs, which are already soring.

The solutions that have been considered by some to address the maritime emissions problem are inadequate. Add-on systems do not scale up well. They simply cannot fit every ship at sea with a catalytic converter large enough to reduce the emissions to more benign constituents, because of the amount of platinum involved; it would be cost-prohibitive. Trying to convert all the maritime vessels to nuclear power is an even worse idea since they could potentially be used to produce weapons-grade nuclear material, e.g. uranium235 or plutonium238. The only nuclear maritime vessel to have ever been built, the NS Savanahwas an economic failure. It could not carry enough cargo or passengers to be profitable.  And then there is converting the entire maritime shipping industry to sail power which, simply put, is a relic from the past and cannot satisfy the high-volume high-speed demands of the modern supply chain. All of these ideas will address the emissions issue but none are viable nor sustainable.

But hiding in plain sight in San Antonio, Texas, there is a solution. At Texas A&M University-San Antonio there is a mobility technology project which is scalable, more efficient, and lower in emission than any other equivalent technology. The project is modernizing a technology that has been well understood for more than 200 years.

Dr. M.K. Balsubramanya and Quantum Industrial Development Corp. are working with a NASA-developed Stirling Cycle engine and reconfiguring it into a series electric hybrid powertrain that is scalable from 10 kW to multi-megawatt. The beauty of the Stirling Cycle engine is that it is more than twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine, thereby cutting Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emissions by 50% while NOx emissions are reduced by 90%. Any ship equipped with a Hybrid Stirling Cycle propulsion system would be emissions compliant and operate with lower fuel costs due to the improvement in efficiency.

There are examples of industries swapping out older inefficient propulsion systems in favor of more efficient ones; take for example the railroad industry. At the turn of the twentieth century, all locomotives were steam engines, which were less than 12% thermally efficient.  Then, in the late 1930s, the railroads began a switch to diesel-powered locomotives that were more than twice as efficient. Later in the 1960s, the railroads switched to the series diesel electric design resulting in another major increase in efficiency.

Another example is the evolution of the airline industry. In the 1920s and '30s, all aircraft were powered by reciprocating piston-driven propellers which were not efficient. Then during WWII nations were busily developing the jet engine, which was more efficient, faster, and required less maintenance. By the late 1960s and early 70s, the airlines were no longer using piston-driven propeller engines.

In both of these examples, the changeover was accomplished not as a result of government mandate or regulation, but by free-market capitalism adopting new innovations that improved the bottom line.

It might seem to some that swapping out an engine in a huge container ship is an impossible task, but that is not the case. Modern ship designs are built with the idea that engines and reduction gear need to be overhauled and removed for repair. Swapping out a marine diesel engine for a Stirling Cycle series electric hybrid propulsion system is an easily doable engineering task. Conversion to this propulsion system, known as APEX, is no more difficult than a normal shipyard overhaul. Unlike the conversion from steam locomotives to diesels, when the whole locomotive had to be scrapped, you are not scrapping the ship, just the diesel engines.   

The benefits of such a conversion would be cleaner air and lower maritime shipping costs without negatively impacting the fueling infrastructure or payload capacity.

Image: Pixabay

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