WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Cargo ships are by far the most polluting types of “vehicles” on the planet, all be the fact they carry huge weights of cargo, but now the industry is starting to electrify and the result will be an environmental revolution.
Ground transport, closely followed by the aviation sector, is currently leading the transition to electric propulsion, and now arguably the world’s most polluting form of transportation, cargo ships, where the world’s 14 largest ships produce more sulphur pollution than all the world’s 750 million cars combined, is slowly getting the same treatment with the announcement that a massive new electric cargo ship in China has been officially launched with a battery powertrain. And at 70.5 meters long, 13.9 meters wide, 4.5 meters deep, 3.3 meters draft design, and with a cargo capacity of 2,000 tons this is now small town row boat.
According to the press release the ship’s powertrain is equipped with two 160 kW electric propellers and a mix of supercapacitors and Lithium batteries for a total energy capacity of 2.4 MWh, for comparison, that’s like 24 batteries from Tesla’s most high powered vehicle the Tesla Model S P100D, and the powertrain reportedly gives the ship a range of roughly 50 miles (80 km) on a single charge, which is fine given the fact that the ship, which ironically carries coal, is only designed for short journeys down the Pearl River in Guangdong Province.
According to Chen Ji, general manger of Guangzhou Shipyard International, the ship will be mainly used to run in the inland section of the Pearl River, carrying coal for the generation of electric power.
The Launch Ceremony
“As the ship is fully electric powered, it poses no threats to the environment. The technology will soon be likely … used in passenger or engineering ships,” Huang Jialin, head of Hangzhou Modern Ship Design & Research Co, said regarding his company’s new innovation.
Both shipyards where it will operate are equipped with massive charging systems that can reportedly charge the boat’s battery pack in just two hours, which is about the time it takes to load and unload the ship, and they plan to use the same design to launch other versions of the boat to carry other kinds of cargo and passengers.
Wang Yongchen, a Beijing environmentalist, commented on the news.
“This kind of ship takes into consideration the harmony between humans and nature and can protect water quality and marine life, and should be copied by other ships sailing on local rivers,” he said.
The vessel had its first successful maiden voyage last month.
While it may seem counter intuitive to launch an all electric ship to carry coal, it’s actually a big step in the right direction. China moves a lot of coal and it’s better to move that coal in battery powered ships than in ships burning incredibly polluting heavy fuels even if the battery-powered ships are powered by electricity generated by coal.
Some of the world’s largest cargo ships emit pollution comparable to millions of passenger cars put together, and the heavy fuel oil that they burn has high sulfur content and therefore, it is an important part of the world’s transportation industry that needs to transition to being battery-powered.
Improvement in energy density are likely going to be needed in order to enable long-distance routes in battery powered ships combined with solar and sail, but in the meantime, plenty of other short trip cargo routes can be electrified like this one, so this is, as they say, just the beginning.