What if international container ships, the cargo ships of the modern globalized age, had zero emissions running on electricity, sunlight and wind power? There are many who look at the current implementation of container ships, and the reliance on extremely dirty bunker fuel (worse than diesel), and complain about the emissions footprint of globalization. Those cheap products in Walmart, made by the zillion in Chinese factories, reach American shores on-board those container ships, belching noxious emissions all the way. But what if those ships were zero emission? Would that substantially change the equations around criticism of globalization?This was a dream I had last night. I took a ride on the first all electric container ship to cross the Atlantic. I woke up astonished at that idea, because you’d think the massive energy requirements of the typical container ship would rule out it being fully electric. There’d be no way to create the gigawatt-hours or perhaps terawatt-hours of electricity storage required for the ship to sail across the Atlantic. But, there it was in my dream.Pondering a bit I thought.. maybe it’s not so impossible.
|Tûranor approaching Miami|
The first step would be to place a large solar panel array above the top row of containers. Last year the Tûranor, an all-electric catamaran, made an around-the-world trip powering itself off a 537 square meter solar array. (see World’s largest solar powered boat reaches Cancun for climate change conference) The array made as much as 400 kilowatt-hours per day of electricity (if I remember correctly from their blog). An array the size of a container ship could make many megawatt-hours of electricity per day, methinks.
The next step would be to use the modern kites that are being developed for cargo ships. This is the modern equivalent of old-school sailing ships, but updated for the modern age. They resemble gigantic parasails, and can pull a container ship along so that it uses less fuel.
Next would be the electricity storage array, and here’s where I come up empty handed. There are plenty of companies designing electric storage arrays from lithium-ion batteries but I imagine the price might be pretty high, and that it might be outrageous to build a storage array large enough for a container ship. At this time. In a few years this may change, because of the many breakthroughs coming every so often on energy density breakthroughs in lithium batteries.
Just this week a new battery breakthrough was announced by CalBattery that should result in a 300% energy density increase, and slashed battery costs. If this pans out (and theirs is not the only research that promises energy density breakthroughs) it would make for a big transformation in the price of electric vehicles. An energy storage unit the size needed to send a container ship across the ocean would require one uber-big battery pack.
It seems feasible to do this in maybe 30 years (rough guess). But is it a good idea?
There are more issues to globalization than just the environmental footprint. It also is a way to subvert clean air laws (ship the jobs to countries that don’t care about clean air) or worker safety laws (ditto to countries that don’t care about citizen health) etc.
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