Facing up to fuel – batteries included

13 September 2017
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Fuelling the future. It’s where the blue-sky thinking becomes headache-grey.

Alas, we don’t have the luxury of Gandalf’s seeing stone – or palantír – as we scan horizons for energy options. Facing up to industrial change requires farsighted investment to mirror strategy, when most anything else is mere crystal balls.

Bunker fuel is a headache for the shipping industry as IMO low-sulphur rules come into force in 2020. The dilemma of choosing between low-sulphur and Liquid Natural Gas fuel has some distance to sail. For many ship-managers low-sulphur fuels will be preferable to comply with rules, as the risks and rethinking of infrastructure and distribution for LNG fuel proves costly, at least in the short-term.

The sector-wide conundrum may at least prove an opportunity for product tankers. Refining capacity will be limited in many areas and requirements for feed stocks will change as mixed fuels will become increasingly important. Tankers may be required for both storage and transport as the supply side adapts to the new regulations.

LNG fuel would seem the way forward, certainly over heavy sulphur fuels, but only if the fuel can be used safely. Risk of explosion or flash fires from an ignition source is a major concern, one that poses a further threat to tugs, lightering or crisis response vessels alongside.

As if that isn’t enough, LNG leaks can compromise the carbon steel hull of a vessel as the extreme cold makes it become brittle. The crisis waiting to happen. But as we know all too well, most don’t wait.

Fuel challenges present a sea-change. Coming through it and out the other side of 2020 isn’t delusory, or buoyant on visionary optimism. Neither is it a tempest in a tea cup…

…Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.

But shipping is stepping up to cut fuel emissions, just as other industries grapple with the same conundrum. Not least car manufacturers, in a hand-brake turn – if not a flat spin – over diesel.

Even aerospace seeks to steal a march on emissions, exploiting electric over kerosene, although not by 2020. And not long haul. Hybrids perhaps… on the ground, silently taxiing like a Toyota Prius away from a school gate. Prius – Latin: coming before – only to become a game-changer.

Electric cars have taken my lifetime to come of age. I had the chance to drive a Honda hybrid prototype in 2001. A test-driver coached me through speed corners in third gear at 75mph – with still more to give. He wanted to show me the build-up of power as it hugged the track. Back then the battery filled the boot, but petrol combustion provided the power through the pedal.

As maritime moves ahead with hybrids, cutting edge innovation and retrofitting meets clear-sighted rationale for greener tech solutions – powering tugs, ferries in Taiwan and artic icebreakers. Propulsion technology is becoming cleaner, while software makes it smarter with electric inverters leading to intelligent power distribution.

The Royal Navy ditched nuclear – due to its high cost – opting instead for hybrid propulsion. The new aircraft carriers, favouring Rolls Royce MT30 (marine gas) turbines – similar to a Boeing 777 engine – and Wärtsilä diesel-turbines within full integrated electric propulsion, have the largest generators ever supplied to the navy. Together these feed the electrical transmission of energy – four electric propulsion motors in tandem – to drive the twin propellers.

At similar scale to carriers, we have seen super-tankers aspire for solar and wind – with a little LNG push. The Solar Hybrid Post Panamax VLCC boasts emissions savings of 75 per cent – at least the design does – but the outset cost may seem prohibitive. Hmmm… taller sail ships, wind power – plausible, laudable…

The energy game is one of small steps as well as giant leaps. Batteries have evolved over 200 years. Capacity, charge and range – their residual limitations ever since Volta’s Pile of zinc, cloth and copper discs.

Electricity is sure to remain a primary power source, but in the energy mix with others – in addition to its full exploitation in ancillary capabilities. Nuclear and diesel fuel oils are the stalwarts that go the distance.

What seems clearer to me is that this reprising age of invention and adaption will grasp at all energy sources and options. Older and new insights will come and go whilst quicker fixes will be forced by IMO sulphur-capping.

Industry likes change about as much as markets like uncertainty, but legacies prove them to be remarkably adept in both.

I met Gandalf the Grey once …ok, in his mortal guise as Sir Ian when I directed him through a recital for TV. Now where’s Gandalf when you need him! According to Tolkien, you can also look back through the palantír. Surely lessons of the past will again fuel our rationale for future tech wizardry.

Something rich and strange it might be, but this sea-change may not be a false profit.


Jonathan Spencer


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