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Charting sustainable futures through maritime electrification

Dr. Ben Gully, chief technology officer, LAVLE. Dr. Ben Gully, chief technology officer, LAVLE.

In 2019, 43 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated from human activity was emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere, an estimated 20 per cent of which resulted from transportation.  Often overlooked in discussions of climate change is the impact of the maritime industry as a generator of greenhouse gas emissions.  At the same time, the marine sector presents the most green option for advancing a sustainable global economy.  The key to achieving this is electrification, writes Dr. Ben Gully, chief technology officer at LAVLE.

In 2014, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimated that CO2 emissions from shipping vessels were equal to two percent of the world’s man-made emissions, saying that without immediate action, those numbers could rise anywhere from 50 to 250 per cent by 2050. 

Yet the maritime sector is ahead of the curve as a sustainable means of transportation.  Shipping is the most carbon-efficient form of transporting cargo around the world.  Container shipping is estimated to be 2.5 times more energy efficient than rail and 7 times more efficient than road transport.  Inland river barges are over 15 times more efficient than rail, and 70 times more efficient than trucks, for transporting goods.  Enhancing this efficiency with solutions that reduce the considerable emissions produced by vessels will further position marine transport as a lynchpin for global sustainability efforts.

To reduce maritime pollution and curb the industry’s negative impacts on climate change, the IMO has committed to reducing the total annual greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by at least 50 percent over the next 30 years.  Vessel owners—to meet these new standards, and to become better environmental stewards—are rapidly accelerating efforts to achieve these goals.  Electrification has emerged as the optimal solution to reduce emissions, fuel, and maintenance costs, while further increasing efficiency.

Why electrification is the best path forward  

Although there are multiple technology pathways to achieve these targets, the maritime sector has largely embraced hybrid or full electric propulsion systems.  These mature technologies allow for the direct replacement of diesel engine power for short sea operation.  When combined with the improvements they offer in efficiency and environmental stability, they are highly attractive to operators including in the ferry sector, in which electric solutions have rapidly expanded worldwide.

Use of batteries has grown much more rapidly than LNG, which while an established and clean technology has not caught on with vessel owners, including due to the high costs and infrastructure required to get LNG onto vessels.  There are an estimated 200 vessels deployed with gas engines, but it has taken more than 15 years to reach this level—in comparison to battery systems, which reached this same level of deployment just within the last 5 years.  Fuel cells are frequently mentioned as part of the future of propulsion systems, yet without batteries they will not be able to take the load profile of conventional vessels.

Batteries offer several important advantages for reducing environmental impacts.  They can be charged using renewable energy when in port, which further reduces emissions.  Vessels equipped with full electric and hybrid electric propulsion systems run both cleaner and quieter—reducing impacts on communities and environmentally sensitive areas.  Modern production and recycling programs for battery technology are also advancing the industry’s overall green footprint, creating new options for reuse and second life.

Moreover, maritime vessels operate with very long life cycles, so “future proofing” is key.  Vessel owners are seeking solutions that enable them to keep ahead of future environmental regulations and restrictions, and costly retrofits.  Advancing battery technologies offer increasingly longer life spans, thus making them an even more attractive investment.

Barriers to wider adoption of battery technologies

The primary challenge to broader application of electrification in the maritime industry has been the safety and performance limitations of conventional lithium-ion storage technologies.  For good reason, safety requirements are already very stringent.  Even more important for advancing electrification of marine vessels is increased energy density.  Up until now, electrification has largely been limited to vessels running shorter routes of 40 minutes or less, restricted by the energy density of existing cell technologies, and the size and weight of energy storage systems (ESS) that can be installed on vessels.

New battery technologies poised to enter the marine market, including lithium metal, solid state, and novel chemistries, will enable vessel owners to overcome these barriers, including through significantly increased energy density, stronger safety, and state-of-the-art ESS management systems.  These will make possible larger-scale applications with greater environmental and industry impact, further accelerating widespread adoption of electrification solutions.

A greener future on the horizon 

As new regulations enter into effect to achieve the IMO’s ambitious emissions reduction targets, no technology is better positioned to facilitate this goal than advanced battery solutions. Undoubtedly the global marine transport industry will see even more changes over the coming years, but marine electrification will continue to offer the most optimal and cost-effective approach to significantly reduce emissions, while further increasing the efficiencies and capabilities of what is already the world’s most sustainable means for keeping commerce moving.

Dr. Ben Gully

Dr. Ben Gully is chief technology officer for LAVLE and leads the company’s battery system design and engineering activities. He previously held the position of senior engineer and subject matter expert for DNV GL’s Maritime Advisory group, coordinating and serving as technical lead of the Maritime Battery Safety Joint Development Project, a collaborative industry research project bringing together leading international manufacturers and governmental maritime authorities to address outstanding issues with lithium-ion battery safety. Dr. Gully holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

This article was originally published on VPO Global.

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