Making shipping sustainable and safe

Posted on Mar 31, 2020
Making shipping sustainable and safe

Swanbarton and Marine South East are developing new technology to deliver clean, sustainable energy to the ships of the future.

The Department for Transport (DfT) ‘Future of Mobility Grand Challenge’, aims to make the UK a world leader in moving people, goods and services safely, cleanly and sustainably. Swanbarton and Marine South East (MSE) are delighted that DfT has selected their project “Shore Power Infrastructure to Decarbonize Shipping (SPIDS)” to receive support through its Transport-Technology Research Innovation Grants (T-TRIG) programme.

Clean shipping?

Sea transport depends almost entirely on fossil fuel, which has high CO2 and particulates emissions. Ships are one of the world’s most polluting forms of transport and contribute greatly to poor air quality in port towns. Other than sails, the only environmentally sustainable way to power ships is by electrification. But there are two big challenges in that:

  • it will need batteries with enough endurance for a sea voyage: so far, batteries have only been used on short-haul ferries and in hybrid power systems in submarines
  • the power for re-charging ships’ batteries for long voyages, during their brief stays in port, would be beyond what any port could presently provide

Clean and quick

But now there is a technology that meets the first challenge: flow batteries. Flow batteries store energy in charged liquid electrolytes, stored in tanks. The size of the tanks is independent of the power rating of the battery’s cells, so the range of the vessel can be extended with just the additional cost of more tank structure and electrolyte. Most flow battery electrolytes are environmentally very safe. Swanbarton are experts in flow battery technology and founders of the International Flow Battery Forum.

And the SPIDS project meets the second challenge in a new and exciting way. Instead of charging a ship’s flow batteries by transferring electrical energy over wires, we do it by rapidly pumping out the used electrolytes and pumping in new. With the kind of connectors and pumps that are used for in-flight refuelling, we can transfer energy much faster than any practical electrical connection. Then the used electrolyte can be refreshed over a longer time scale, in an onshore charging facility.

Swanbarton and MSE are developing demonstrations of the technical and commercial feasibility of shore-based rapid charging systems for vessels using flow batteries. Swanbarton will use its knowledge of flow battery design and operations, along with its experience in the design of large-scale battery energy storage systems to optimise the size of the shore charging facility.

Our work addresses all four of DfT’s priorities: boosting economic growth; improving journeys; making transport safer, more secure and sustainable; and relieving the UK’s port cities from ship-borne air pollution. As shipping is a worldwide industry, there is considerable opportunity to apply our work in export markets.