Supply Chain Expertise and Technology Blog by TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson

Freight Transportation Enters New Waters

Maritime transport innovations

Will nuclear-powered container ships soon be plying the world’s oceans? Or vessels powered by fuel cells and solar panels? These theoretical ships might seem far-fetched, but there could be enough of a commercial imperative to push them off the drawing board and into commercial service in the not too distant future.

Chinese shipping line COSCO is reportedly in talks with national nuclear authorities to develop nuclear-powered vessels. Hermann Klein, Executive Board Member of Germanischer Lloyd, recently predicted in the British shipping publication Lloyd’s List that nuclear deep sea container vessels that only need to re-fuel once every five years will eventually replace conventional vessels.

Nuclear power has been installed in navy submarines for some years, and there has even been a merchant vessel powered by the atom. The Savannah – named after the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean using steam engines – is a cargo/passenger ship built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation that sailed over 450,000 miles in the five years she was in service between 1965 and 1970.

But nuclear is not the only new source of shipboard power that the industry is developing. For example Japanese shipping line NYK displays its Super Eco Ship 2030 on the company’s web site. The concept vessel derives power from arrays of solar panels and retractable sails although NYK says it is “focusing on fuel cells as a promising clean-energy option.” The company is targeting zero emissions by 2050.

These innovations are the latest in a long line of step changes in cargo ship design. A recent example that, as yet, has not come to fruition is the JetShip. Originally scheduled to enter service this year between the ports of Philadelphia and Cherbourg, France, JetShip uses cutting-edge jet propulsion and hull technology to speed it across the Atlantic in just 91 hours. That would deliver a door-to-door transit time of six to seven days. FastShip Inc., the company behind the new vessel design, aimed to compete for high-value cargo because JetShip offers a low-cost alternative to air transportation.

Is the current push to take merchant vessel design to a new level a fad, or are we witnessing another turning point in maritime commerce? The key element is a commercial imperative to drive radical change. For example, in the mid-1800s innovations such as steam power transformed shipping because owners were vying to cash in on the burgeoning transatlantic passenger trades. The winners were those companies that could introduce faster, more reliable services.

Today’s imperative is sustainability and the cost of oil. “If the volume of goods transported by sea increases 3% every year, the volume in 40 years will be 3.3 times today’s volume. To cut total CO2 emissions in half by 2050, we have to reduce CO2 emissions per ton-mile by 85%. So, we are striving for further technical and operational innovation,” says NYK, in a statement that neatly summarizes the challenge facing ship owners.

The chances are that maritime transportation has entered a transformative period that could have far-reaching supply chain implications. For instance, what will be the impact on the cost of a mode that carries most of the goods shipped globally? And if ships are being reengineered what about other modes of transportation? How will trucks be powered 10 years from now?