Shipping containers on a ship in the ocean, getty images
The global shipping industry's carbon impact is not just from its fuel consumption, but also the construction, painting and even clearing of ships. Photograph: timandtim/Getty Images 
To help cut the shipping industry’s carbon footprint, experts at the University of Plymouth are developing real-world solutions, such as the UK’s first network of electric charging points for boats.
By: Mark Hillsdon
From the vast container ships crossing the world’s oceans to smaller boats buzzing around the UK’s inshore waters, all are leaving a carbon footprint in their wake that a British university is determined to reduce.
The University of Plymouth is bringing together expertise from inside and outside its walls – a whole-system approach – to provide real-world solutions that can cut the shipping industry’s carbon footprint.
Teams of engineers and designers are working alongside scientists and economists to find ways to decarbonise the maritime sector, driven by a commitment to net zero and a desire to make our oceans cleaner.
“There is no silver bullet when it comes to maritime decarbonisation,” says Dr Richard Pemberton, a lecturer in mechanical and marine engineering design at the university. “What’s needed is a transdisciplinary approach, including industry-driven research, which can bring about the innovative solutions that can make shipping greener.”
This approach is part of the university’s support for the government’s clean maritime plan, which has set out to achieve a zero emissions shipping fleet by 2050. It’s a tall order given that 80% of global trade is carried by sea, contributing 2.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions. “The sector needs to diversify and change,” says Pemberton. “But there’s no one-size solution that fits everyone.”
Change is certainly under way in the south-west as the university partners with businesses, supporting them with research and development. These businesses include electric charging specialists Aqua superPower, which the university has partnered with to install the UK’s first network of electric charging points for boats, creating an electric seaway along England’s south coast.
The network reflects the fact that while electricity is never likely to power a huge container ship crossing the Atlantic, it’s the perfect solution for small vessels in the UK’s harbours and inshore waters. Small ferries, vessels used by harbour masters and offshore windfarm maintenance crews, and leisure boats, are all perfect for electrification, says Aqua superPower chief executive officer Alex Bamberg.
High power DC electric charging point
This charging point at Queen Anne's Battery, Plymouth, is part of the UK's first electric seaway. Photograph: Lloyd Russell/University of Plymouth
“Our role is to get infrastructure in, knowing that the boats will follow – it will not happen the other way round, and that’s where the University of Plymouth has been so integral. They understand that story,” he says. “The staff we’ve worked with have a fantastic mix of entrepreneurial zeal and academic knowledge – they’re passionate about decarbonisation and sustainability.”
Pemberton’s students are also working on designing a floating power station that can refuel electric vessels using energy generated by its own tidal and wind turbines and solar panels. Autonomous electric vessels are in development too – including some that can operate below the surface and be used to survey potential windfarm sites, but without leaving a carbon footprint.
The university is looking beyond decarbonisation to clean up shipping, says Pemberton. “It’s not just about the engine but the materials the boats are built with and what’s used to wash them,” he says, with his students “helping businesses to look at every step of what they do to see if they can have a lower impact on the environment”.

A new antifouling product

This is true of its partnership with local marine coatings specialists Edwards & Renouf, and work on a new antifouling product that prevents weeds and molluscs attaching themselves to the hull of a boat. The product is free of heavy metals, which have traditionally been used in such coatings but which can pollute the seas when they wash off.
Our whole-system approach has proved crucial, says Pemberton, with engineers first assessing the reduced drag and fuel consumption that freeing up hulls can bring. The business then worked with university chemists and marine biologists to test the impact of the antifouling product on marine life. “Usually if you look in a boat yard and people are spraying antifouling, they’re dressed in a full hazmat suit. You don’t even need a pair of gloves to put this stuff on,” says Pemberton.
Other researchers are also working on ways in which to use waste products to create new biofuels. In one example, lithium, recycled from spent batteries, is mixed with feedstock such as seaweed or farmyard slurry, where it acts as a catalyst, binding together carbon and hydrogen to form a new fuel.
It’s these sorts of innovative solutions that can make a real difference, he adds. “We’re a coastal nation, and the sea matters to a lot of people. By working together with industry and local communities we can accelerate the push towards a cleaner maritime sector.”
Another aspect of research at the university is how shipping will use these fuels of the future. Pemberton’s colleague Dr Stavros Karamperidis, a lecturer in maritime economics, focuses on port infrastructure, especially managing the new generation of fuels that are being promoted as a replacement for diesel, such as hydrogen and ammonia.
Ports – particularly in the UK – lack space because towns have often grown around them, says Karamperidis. “This is an issue when it comes to storing and refuelling vessels. There are also safety considerations, as well as the capability of the local grid to cope with the electrification of cranes and other port equipment.”
But alongside all the new infrastructure and technical innovation, a critical part of reducing shipping’s carbon footprint is convincing consumers that they have an important role to play. This will involve persuading them to reset their expectations that ever cheaper products can be delivered on demand – it’s simply not sustainable. Karamperidis mentions a French company that has started using sail boats to ship goods. “The carrying capacity of those vessels is much smaller compared with container ships, so it is more expensive to move the goods. In addition it takes more time to ship the goods. Therefore the key question is if consumers are really willing to wait longer and pay more for their new phone or TV in order for them to be transported net-zero?”
That question is part of the decarbonisation conundrum challenging minds globally. In the meantime, Plymouth is navigating the course to finding the solutions the shipping industry needs.

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