Tech

This electric cargo ship could soon replace fuel-powered cargo

Designing an electric cargo ship isn’t as easy as building an electric car – and until recently, most experts would have argued that battery-electric ships were unfeasible for ocean voyages. A huge cargo ship could theoretically need a battery that weighs 1.6 billion pounds, more than the ship could carry. However, one startup plans to soon cross the Pacific using smaller electric ships that swap batteries at ports along the way, in a system that could prove cheaper than fossil fuel shipping.

“We started with the problem of decarbonizing ocean freight and finding a way to make it cost no more,” says Steven Henderson, the startup’s co-founder and CEO, on the phone Fleetzero, part of the latest cohort from tech accelerator Y Combinator. Henderson and co-founder Michael Carter both worked in the marine industry and saw a major challenge to the industry’s emissions reduction goals: the existing alternatives were far more expensive than the status quo. Ammonia or green hydrogen, for example, could cost up to four times as much as the heavy fuel oil ships use today. Engines also had to be redesigned to burn alternative liquid fuels, increasing costs. “We realized that this is not good for the industry if this is our future and it is not good for the world if interest rates are going up,” says Carter. The company’s new approach means that the cost of freight does not change for customers.

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[Image: courtesy Fleetzero]

They began investigating a number of alternatives, initially thinking electric ships wouldn’t work. A container ship with room for 10,000 or 20,000 sea containers, designed to circumnavigate the world on a single tank of fuel, would not have room for batteries that do not have the energy density of liquid fuel. “It wasn’t feasible,” says Carter. “But we found that we were solving the wrong problem.” They calculated that the current battery technology could make sense for smaller ships – their new design offers space for 3,000 to 4,000 containers – and short stops along the way. “Modern ships are optimized for fossil fuels,” says Henderson. “What would it look like if you optimized ships around batteries?”

The company’s batteries are designed to fit into standard shipping containers, allowing them to be lifted off the ship by crane at a port and replaced with freshly charged batteries. (Many ports don’t have the capacity to connect ships directly to electricity, and battery swapping is quicker too, although a Norwegian company is now doing a lot of testing smaller electric cargo ship for short trips and plug it in to charge.) On a typical route, a ship traveling from China to the US might pass Japan and Alaska before reaching Seattle, and then head down the West Coast to LA; The distance between the connectors is short enough that current battery technology can cover the range.

Since the ships are smaller, they can also call at ports that are hardly used today – since cargo ships are oversized, they can only be handled by a few ports. Having more options means the company can avoid the crowded ports in situations like the recent delays in LA and Long Beach Dozens of ships waited in long lines unloaded for days. As a US-based company, Fleetzero can also access some ports that foreign companies are not allowed, which allows goods to be delivered to customers more directly.

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[Image: courtesy Fleetzero]

“We can have a route between, say, Long Beach [California] and Portland [Oregon] on a ship, effectively taking thousands of trucks off the road,” says Henderson. “And it’s a cheaper service. Road shipping is a lot more expensive than ocean shipping.” Right now, if Chinese-made shoes are shipped to Portland, Oregon, they could arrive on a ship sailing down the West Coast to Southern California, passing Oregon. Then they could be loaded onto a truck and travel back north, increasing the carbon footprint.

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[Image: courtesy Fleetzero]

While the batteries will take up space on a ship, Fleetzero has calculated that they will take up less space than the current system of diesel engines and fuel and ballast tanks, leaving more space for cargo. Workers can charge batteries when electricity costs are low, and the batteries could also serve as backup power supplies for ships in California ports, where regulations require ships to do so stop running their engines when docking to reduce pollution.

The startup has built a prototype container-sized battery so far and will complete another in the next two weeks. It also cleared the first safety standards regulatory hurdle with the American Bureau for Shipping. Tests in a retrofitted ship will be next, and the company is expected to commission its first ship in 2023. (Diesel-electric ships can be retrofitted in a matter of weeks, although Fleetzero plans to eventually build its own ships that will open up cargo space without the onboard fossil-fuel infrastructure.)

Several large companies are interested in using the ships for deliveries, from clothing and consumer electronics brands to major retailers, the company said, with partnerships to be announced later this year. Companies like Amazon, Ikea and Patagonia have Aim to transition to zero-carbon shipping by 2040. It’s doable that all of that could happen with electric cargo ships, Henderson argues, although battery technology is likely to evolve. “What we are convinced of today is that the future of shipping is electric,” he says. “How these electrons are stored on the ship will change over time, I think.”

https://www.fastcompany.com/90738126/this-startup-designed-an-electric-cargo-ship-to-cross-the-ocean?partner=feedburner&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=feedburner+fastcompany&utm_content=feedburner This electric cargo ship could soon replace fuel-powered cargo

JACLYN DIAZ

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