Planet Solar's Turanor approaching Miami

If container ships were fully electric, and zero emissions, would we stop complaining about globalization?

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.


About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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  1. The world is changed starting with a dream, the power of our passion. While I believe that those who complain will continue complain about globalization for a number of reasons, the possibility of an all-electric ship has been embraced on both sides of the Atlantic: the U.S. NAVY as well as companies located near leading trade centers of the European Union in Rotterdam and my home town Hamburg, Germany. In fact, the publicized goal of the EU, currently funded by a $EUR2.8B budget (~$3.5B) for energy efficiency includes the concept of an all-electric ship. The goal is a single European Transport Area, which sets an ambitious target "by 2050 reduce EU CO2 emissions from maritime bunker fuels by 40% (if feasible 50%)", pg 14, EU Directorate General EC Transport White Paper Goals (2011). I am pleased to report that our U.S. NAVY has put a similar step forward. We are currently working on two proposal supporting the integration of prime movers, electric drives, power electronics, and ship-board communications required for a real-time optimization system. While the shipping industry are laggards in technology adoption, smaller niche markets such as high-tech yachts, offshore platforms, and diesel-hybrid ferries will be early adopters of such technology, paving the path for larger commercialization. Your assessment of a 30-year commercial innovation adoption cycle is on the mark, but based on recent grant recipients market leader Maersk, Maersk Line, and Cleveland Ship, the effort is already underway. In order to accelerate development of supporting technologies, infiniRel is open to discuss Crowdfunding and conventional investment vehicles with appropriate supporters.

    • Thank you for the references. Now that you mention it I recall seeing something about the Navy working on things like this. And, of course, there are the boats that carry a nuclear reactor where the actual drive train of course is electric.

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