The ‘Tesla of the canals’ – the all-electric cargo ship that is set to sail very soon

The ‘Tesla of the canals’ – the all-electric cargo ship that is set to sail very soon

In the past year, we have seen some exciting advancements in shipping technology that are sure to set the standard for the future of the cargo industry. We have talked in the past about the eco-friendly benefits of the containers themselves, but we are now seeing a more environmentally minded approach to how we ship these containers.

What is it?

In January 2018, the Dutch manufacturer PortLiner announced that they had developed a fully electric and emission-free container barge. The innovation is being referred to as the ‘Tesla of the canals’, and will significantly reduce the amount of harmful carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere. About 23,000 diesel-fuelled trucks are expected to be removed from the roads as a result of this new technology. If the cargo industry were a country, it would rank as the sixth largest contributor to global CO2 emissions, nestling in between Germany and Japan. Clearly, it’s about time that we found a more environmentally friendly alternative.

How does it work?

These new cargo ships will use an electric engine powered by a number of power boxes, which can be charged on shore before departure. It is expected that these electric engines can last for around fifty years before they will need to be replaced. The power boxes are stored in containers (after all, containers are great for storage), and can be easily lifted and replaced with fully charged containers while docked. Alternatively, power can be supplied directly to the power boxes on the ship through a power plug installed on shore.

How big are they?

Without the need for a large engine room, these new boats will have up to 8% more space to store containers. In the testing stages, PortLiner are planning on producing five barges that are 52m long and 6.7m wide. These smaller barges will be able to carry 24 20ft containers weighing up to 425 tonnes. In the future, the Dutch manufacturers are planning on building six larger barges that will be able to carry up to 280 20ft containers.

While these ships are considerably smaller than some of the largest petrol powered cargo ships used throughout the world, these innovations can still be valued as a step in the right direction. Following this initial testing period, PortLiner estimate that they would be able to produce around 500 barges a year, while also finding a means of retrofitting the electric motors and batteries into existing container barges. Exciting stuff.

Any cool features?

Glad you asked! The barge is set to come complete with a height adjustable wheelhouse (or pilothouse) complete with all the latest technology for inland vessels. Not only does this allow the captain to see above the stacked containers where necessary, but it can also be lowered so that the ship can pass under any low bridges. The barge even has a large luxury living area for cabin crew that is around the size of a duplex apartment.

Is this the first electric container barge in the world?

It’s hard to say, as similar innovations were made by other countries around the same time as PortLiner’s announcement.  In December 2017, the Guangzhou Shipyard International Company in China launched a 70m long all-electric cargo ship that can run for 80km after only being charged for two hours. However, these electric cargo ships will primarily be used to transport coal, ironically one of the most harmful fossil fuels for the environment. Therefore, it is debatable as to how eco-friendly this choice really is.

In July 2017 Norwegian fertiliser giants Yara announced that they would be teaming up with engineering experts Kongsberg to develop the “Yara Birkeland”, which they have described as the world’s first zero emission, autonomous container feeder. Technically this is correct. The Yara Birkeland will be able to sail without any cabin crew and will be able to unload cargo all by itself, while the PortLiner barge is not automated as of yet. It seems that all of these announcements happened at around the same time, and this doesn’t take into account when exactly development started for each of these projects. Therefore it is hard to pinpoint who had the idea first.

When will we start to see these electric barges in action?

The PortLiner barges are already in action, although not on a large scale. In August, five initial small barges were placed into operation, used to transport cargo between the ports of the Netherlands and Belgium. The Dutch manufacturers are looking to slowly expand and bring the larger barges into play at a later date – however, we have no specific timeframe as to when this might be.

China’s electric barge was launched in November 2017, and was put into commercial use throughout the early stages of 2018. The barge travels down the Pearl River towards and towards a local power plant, to which it can deliver up to 2,100 metric tons of coal at a time.

We will have to wait a little longer to see Yara’s fully automated electric barge in the flesh. Last year, the ship operated as a manned vessel and in 2019 we will see the Yara Birkeland operate by remote. Yara hope that, after these initial stages, the ship will be capable of fully autonomous travel by 2020.

Hopefully, you’re now as excited about these advancements as we are. If you want to get in on this exciting industry by buying or renting a container of your own, then get in contact with us today.

23.01.2019
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