Friday, 25 July 2014


ECAs (emission control areas) are stimulating debate in the shipping industry about how, most cost effectively, to respond. Arguments are polarising around scrubbers or LNG. The latter has a significant number of advocates and for good reason - it is lower in sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter and comes at a more competitive price than marine gas oil (MGO), the alternative for vessels operating in ECAs.

LNG, however, is a far from perfect fuel from a greenhouse gas perspective. Methane slip, where partially combusted gas escapes into the atmosphere, is a very significant issue. LNG is a potent greenhouse gas - about two orders of magnitude as powerful as CO2 and this offsets many of its advantages. Significant efforts are being made in the industry to reduce methane slip, and to talk down the impact, the argument being that methane slip from the marine sector is significantly less than from other activities such as agriculture, mining and ‘natural seepage’. This rather evocatively unpleasant term relates to methane produced from food waste, sewerage and manure. This source of methane presents an opportunity.

Through a process of anaerobic digestion these unpleasant sources of energy can be converted into Liquid Bio-methane, bio-gas, and, after cleaning, this is the same as LNG. Bio-gas can be spiked into any LNG grid that evolves in response to maritime bunker demand and through a process of back-to-back certification ship operators can demonstrate they are operating on renewable fuels - which may prove to be lucrative as we move into a fossil-fuel depleted future.

Since bio-gas depends on waste as a feedstock it does not reduce land available for agriculture and so avoids the food/fuel debate whilst making good use of methane producing ‘seepage’. Regardless of the unlimited supply of feedstock bio-gas will be in limited supply because it is recognised as a valuable fuel of the future and all forms of transport are seeking practical non-fossil solutions. Bio-gas is not currently available in volume but it’s development is being eagerly trialled by land transport operators in automotive and rail.
Rather pointing the finger of blame at other sectors shipping, as the most efficient form of transport, should be staking a strong claim for future use of bio-gas and and claiming superiority by actively engaging in supporting the development and adoption of bio-gas across the global fleet.

Friday, 18 July 2014


Future Automated Sailing Technology rigs, FAST rigs for short, are smart bits of kit. When we think of sailing vessels, square riggers of 120 years ago, we immediately associate them with uncertain delivery schedules, dangerous handling capability and filthy on-board conditions. Things have changed. FAST rigs, being automated, are operated from the bridge by means of push button controls.

The technology, created in the 1960s by German Wilhelm Prohls as the dynarig, has been developed and proven on the super-yacht The Maltese Falcon. She used sail propulsion alone for more than 60% of her time at sea. She crossed oceans, manoeuvred in and out of ports across the world and can be sailed straight off the dock (a very cool piece of seamanship captured on You Tube). The joke is she needs 2 sailing crew, one to push the buttons, the other to fetch the coffee.

To industrialise this technology loading and force analysis is undertaken on the best materials to use to create a robust, workaday solution for a merchant vessel rather than a money-no-object system that is a necessary element of superyacht DNA. The FAST rig combines steel and composites in a novel but straightforward and manageable way to secure the optimum techno-economic balances between strength, light-weighting and cost.

The sails themselves are like roller blinds, each individually fitted into the rig system via a cassette mechanism. This offers several advantages; when all the sails are fully deployed the propulsion effect is similar to a fixed wingsail but in varying weather conditions when the wind can be behaving differently at the top and the bottom of the masts various combinations of soft FAST rig sail can be employed allowing maximum optimisation of available wind. In the event that a sail blows out it is easy, safe and cheap to replace. This happens in port. The mast is tubular and will contain, on the inside, a safety ladder developed and approved for use in wind turbines. The crew clips out the old cassette and the new one in.

The FAST rig, as a consequence of automation, has no lines and rigging on deck meaning access to holds is considerably more straightforward than on the old traditional clipper ships and crews aren’t on deck on foul conditions hauling on ropes ensuring the safety of the ships crew.

Reliability is key in 21st century logistics systems and industrial sailing hybrid vessels have usual engine propulsion systems available ensuring schedules are maintained. Because these engines are used less often it ensures longer life and lower servicing and maintenance requirements. The economics of sailing hybrid vessels are different to that of a conventional ship, there is a marginally higher capital cost playing against a significantly lower and predictable operational budget. Where there is no dependency on volatile fossil fuel the opex can be fixed over the lifetime of the vessel. This may mean the traditional structure of the shipping system needs to be amended but does not diminish the evidence that wind works

Monday, 14 July 2014


The main selling point for using wind to augment propulsion on ships is simple: there are no plans to alter the price of wind anytime soon. It is an infinite, if intermittent, free fuel supply. Sailing and wind-assist devices deployed today will use ‘fuel’ that costs exactly the same for the vessels’ whole lifetime. Fixing a significant proportion of fuel cost allows greater certainty in operating budgets giving more room for manoeuvre in other critical areas.

21st century industrialised sailing ships are reliable, designed to deliver to the same schedules as any conventional ship - if the wind doesn’t blow there’s an engine to ensure logistics commitments are met. If the wind does blow sailing hybrid vessels increase speed to reduce overall fuel use along any given route. Smart weather routing systems devised for offshore yacht racing, and now adapted for the commercial sector, support optimum course decisions to minimise fuel use whilst maintaining schedules.

Modern sailing and wind-assist systems don’t require extra crew members. Sail systems are operated electronically from the bridge, there’s no rope pulling required, no need to slip across the foredeck in foul conditions risking life. Push button technology also enhances the opportunity to squeeze every bit of performance out of the wind and the rig, in seconds the sail system can respond to shifts in the wind. Research has shown that crews can welcome the opportunity to develop their skills and engage with new technology. 

Whilst there are several obstacles being addressed in the deployment of wind at sea none are insurmountable. Certain cargoes are more suited to early adoption of wind at sea and smaller dry bulk vessels are proving to be most promising first movers. Commercial ship designers and naval architects are figuring out how cargo can work around structures on deck, looking at loading/discharge self load solutions and interfacing with existing automated computerised cranes.

There are various ways of deploying wind on ships, the most basic is as a principle source of propulsion on smaller vessels by way of a 21st century automated square rig. Smaller vessels are inherently less efficient, unable to benefit from economies of scale, and are more vulnerable to vagaries in bunker prices. The proportion of operating budget on small ships attributable to fuel has risen from 10% to 60% in the last decade. Sailing hybrid ships, where 50% of the propulsion comes from ‘free fuel’, make economic sense. This financial prize is what drives the world’s greatest designers and naval architects to work alongside the dry bulk sector to create workable 21st century industrial sailing ships.

Thursday, 3 July 2014


There’s a flurry of urgent activity now about the imminent implementation of the low sulphur regulations. The British Chamber of Shipping have been to Parliament to seek a delay in implementation; fuel suppliers are recommending early action on forward buying low sulphur fuels and deploying complex hedging tools.

The trouble is last minute dashes rarely end in sustainable - by which we mean certain, long term profitability - solutions. Once we get in to desperate positions we are forced to take desperate action and this is rarely the lowest cost, most rugged long term solution.

From an engineering perspective for the last 150 years or so it’s been relatively straightforward to deploy cheap, liquid fossil fuels in all maritime situations but things are not so simple now. The age of cheap fossil fuels is coming to an end and we can ignore it, wait til the last minute and panic buy a ‘quick-fix’ or we can start to think strategically now.

The global fleet is a complex ‘eco-system’ made up of multiple ship types operating in a myriad of situations responding to and driving the global economic system. Addressing this complexity demands a great deal of research, analysis and debate.

To compound the challenge we have to think long term; to try and predict how global systems will alter into an uncertain future.

Renewable energy has been adopted by land based systems - from automotive to power generation - as a resilient hedging tool to address the demise of fossil fuels. The maritime sector has multiple opportunities in this area too; there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution so we have to think smarter.

The global fleet, indeed the global economy, was built on wind power. It has huge potential. When we think of wind at sea we picture glorious old clippers but now it’s time to revise that thinking. Evolution of sailing ships was halted in the 1890s when the Industrial Revolution took hold. The Flying Cloud held the world NY-SF sailing record for more than 100 years. She was built in response to The Gold Rush and no sailing vessel could touch her performance.. 

As a global society we’ve changed a bit since the 19th century. How much potential is locked up in The Flying Cloud? We know America’s Cup yachts can sail faster than the wind, how much of that technology and thinking can we transfer to commercial shipping?
We need to embrace complex, challenging issues early and take decisive action to mitigate the costly risk of delay. The time to act is now