First Zero-Emissions, Autonomous Cargo Ship Sets Sail

Image: Cavernia via Wikimedia Commons

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

This week, Norwegian chemical company Yara International announced that it had designed the world’s first zero-emissions, autonomous cargo ship. The ship— the Yara Birkeland— will make its maiden crewless voyage between two Norwegian towns by the end of 2021.

Why This Matters: According to the International Maritime Organization, the shipping industry currently accounts for between 2.5% and 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If it were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-largest emitter, yet decarbonizing shipping is far more difficult than it is for others. The United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) aims to cut the shipping industry’s total emissions to at least half of those in 2008 by 2050. Still, this has proven difficult because of prolonged travel distances and massive cargo loads. Moreover, It’s estimated that green alternatives to bunker fuel are 300% to 600% more expensive

This is why this battery-powered vessel from Yara International marks a considerable step forward for the shipping industry’s efforts to decarbonize as the deadline to halt climate change rapidly approaches. 

Be The Change You Want to Sea: Yara International partnered with technology firm Kongsberg Maritime and shipbuilder Vard in 2017 to construct the Birkeland. The ship can carry 103 containers and travel at 13 knots, with a 7 MWh battery that has about one thousand times the capacity of an electric car. 

Yara asserts that operating zero-emissions ships without humans could offset their higher energy costs. Still, autonomous vessels present many difficulties. Ships still need humans to navigate busy ports or to detect and fix problems. The vessel could also encounter legal obstacles when traveling to other countries with different rules and regulations. 

Other companies are also taking the plunge into zero-emissions vessels. A week ago, the world’s largest maritime shipping company Maersk pledged only to order new ships that can use carbon-neutral fuel, aiming to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries will also construct and develop eight new carbon-efficient vessels by early 2024. 

As Phys explained, maritime shipping is far more efficient than shipping by truck, rail or air, and is responsible for moving more than 80 percent of traded goods (by weight) worth billions of dollars daily. This is why we need significant innovation to ensure that the vessels shipping goods across the world are capable of running on sustainable and renewable fuel sources.

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