FEATURE - Fuel of the future

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  • Trade-A-Boat

<I>Trade-a-Boat</I> ponders the propulsion of tomorrow and a chat with a couple of experts turns up some controversial surprises. JEFF STRANG reports…

FEATURE - Fuel of the future
FEATURE – Fuel of the future

Sittingby the dock putting a few thousand litres of the Middle East’s finest in ahard-core long-range sportsfisher at $1.40 a litre was enough to make my eyeswater, and I wasn’t even the one paying the bill. Fuel prices seem to be risingin a constant and inexorable manner. The question is where is this going to endup?

Currentestimates suggest the planet has oil reserves for between 50 and 100 years.Seems like a long time but demand is on the increase, and that increase isforecast to rise sharply as standards of living in China and India ramp-up overthe next decade.

Sothe reality is that our grandchildren are not going to be pushing their boatsaround with products that have been manufactured from crude oil. Thisinescapable fact has put some significant wheels into motion. The world’sbiggest energy players — BP, Mobil-Exxon, etc., are spending vast sums of moneylooking for the next big thing.

Sowhich of the long-term alternatives are we most likely to see in the marineindustry? Trade-a-Boat spoke to a couple of energy expertsto get their take on the most viable alternatives to the planet’s most talkedabout commodity.

Electricity certainly seems to be the frontrunner in the automobile industry,and recent breakthroughs are likely to make batteries very fast to charge. Surea flat battery is a bigger problem on a boat than in a car but hybrid vesselslike the recently released Greenline 40 (look for our test on page 60) arealready being developed and showing promise. Many marine companies areinvesting in hybrid technology as the demand for cleaner greener boatsincreases.

Itshould be remembered that the energy used to drive the electric motors is onlyas clean as the original generating source. That might be the boat’s maindiesel powerplant, some solar panels or the generation scheme that produced thepower for the shorepower outlet — which of course, could be coal fired. Surelythose solar panels are okay right? Well yes they are but how much power do thereally produce?

"…the reality is that our grandchildren are not going to be pushing their boats around with products thathave been manufactured from crude oil"

Inconsulting engineer Bryan Leyland’s opinion not enough. With currenttechnologies most vessels face serious constraints mounting enough solar panelsto provide any real payback. Providing enough electrical storage to cope withthe hours of darkness is still an issue as is cloud cover. He also questionsthe solar-power industry’s ability to be economic without the governmentsubsidies currently in place.

Interestingly,New Zealand fuel expert Geoff Bates’ comments on hybrid technology for boatswere more positive. In his view, although there is still some way to go, he cansee benefits in applications where the vessel only needs to travel slowly, suchas some recreational fishing activities. At these speeds diesel engines areoften inefficient and suffer problematic mechanical issues.

Insummary, there is some way to go but the technology will improve and we have tostart somewhere.

A personal favourite,at least for our industry, is hydrogen. It’s the most abundant element in theuniverse so supply should be no issue and the only by-product of burning it iswater. There is research currently underway in the USA where a combination ofsolar power is being used to release hydrogen from water during the day, whichis then stored and used to power a home during the evening. The scientistsbelieve they could actually produce enough spare hydrogen to refuel a familycar as well. Hydrogen, however, as Bryan pointed, does have storage andtransportation issues. In a nutshell it’s expensive and dangerous on bothcounts.

Compressednatural gas (CNG) — a bit retro I know — is highly favoured by both BryanLeyland and Geoff Bates. Basically, it’s the methane released by rottinggarbage (some of it today, but the vast majority during prehistoric times andis now trapped in massive quantities all over the planet).

AsBryan puts it the Earth has an absolute glut of CNG. Geologists have discovereda type of methane (CNG) frozen in the earth’s crust in a state known as methanehydrate. Some estimates indicate that as much as 20 quadrillion cubic metres(yes, quadrillion is a real word) of frozen methane is trapped in seafloorsediments all over the world. To put that in perspective that is more thandouble the quantity of all the Earth’s other fossil fuels put together. Itburns much cleaner than other fossil fuels and will run a conventional petrolor diesel engine with only minor modifications.

GeoffBates is an expert on CNG as a fuel source and his work was highly sort afterat the height of the ’80s fuel crisis, the last time we truly panicked at thethought of oil running out. His work, ironing out technical issues with theperformance of engines running on CNG, received global attention. He points outthe first engines to meet the current emission standards ran on CNG. Itproduces around 15 per cent less CO2 and much less of the other volatileorganic compounds. He does acknowledge that CNG faces a few storage issues in amarine environment as well as a lot of infrastructure rollout, but those areproblems that are likely to be overcome when the price is right. For Geoff thenext cab of the rank is more likely to be LPG as a sort of intermediate step.

A major player, of course, is wind power, which we are likely to see being usedin more commercial applications as the big freight companies grapple with therising costs of doing business. From a recreational perspective, I know of onesailboat currently offering long-range fishing expeditions. I laughed when Ifirst heard about it, but perhaps the man behind the concept really is avisionary.

Wind-assisteddiesel projects have been under investigation for a number of years. As a keensailor who happens to be an engineer, Geoff Bates has been involved with somerecent research into the topic. Investigations into carbon fibre rigid sailslike those found on the new America’s Cup AC45 racing cats proved problematicin heavy weather. Current school of thought is in favour of giant kites, muchlike those a kite surfer might use. They are relatively easy to manage and intheory will deliver overall efficiency improvements in the range of 10 percent. Apparently a potential issue with these super kites is that they fly sohigh they could be an impediment to air traffic.

Now just to set the cat among the pigeons (in this case it’s a great, bigsnarling sabretooth tiger), Bryan Leyland is a proponent of nuclear power useand sees it as a genuine contender for heavy-ship transport. While heacknowledges there will be significant issues getting this option across theline in most public arenas, nuclear power is the elephant in the room on thegreat future energy debate.

Itis hard to deny that nuclear energy has the potential to provide near limitlesspower across almost every sector of industry. We are all aware of, and probablytry not to think about, the large number of nuclear-powered warships and subsin active operation across the globe. Performance of these vessels is unmatchedby those with more conventional propulsion systems, which is why it is used.

Bryantalks about the development of fully sealed 25 megawatt nuclear enginesrequiring zero maintenance for 10 years. Once the fuel source is depleted theentire unit can be removed from the ship and returned to the manufacturer for afull refit in a controlled environment.

Soundsgood in theory but how would we feel about those vessels plying their tradeglobally under a Flag of Convenience. Just look at the wreck ofRena sitting on that reef in New Zealand. It’s a big enoughproblem now. Imagine if it had a nuclear engine onboard.

The reality for the time being is that we will be relying on the fuels we arealready very familiar with – petrol and diesel. Many experts suggest that theactual reserves of these fuels are much higher than we are being told in themedia. Is it really so hard to believe that the spin doctors of the oilcompany’s wouldn’t tell the whole truth when they know that any fear aroundfuel supply pushes up market demand increasing profits?

Onthe upside, increasing fuel costs have led to massive improvements incombustion engine technology. Conventional combustion engines have becomehugely more efficient in recent years. They really are leaner, cleaner, andconsiderably meaner. The best advice today for saving money at the fuel pump isto invest in a new technology motor. It will cost more initially, but theseengines hold their value.

Oh,and maybe consider pulling the throttle back a bit!

BryanLeyland is a consulting electrical and mechanical engineer with wide-rangingexperience in power generation. He is recognised as a global expert on smallhydropower generation schemes, and is a frequent and sometimes controversialcommentator on electricity market models, with a good understanding of nuclearpower generation.

Managingdirector of innovative engineering company Clever by Design Ltd, Geoff Bates’early career in development with natural gas engines and fuel systems, as wellas storage and dispensing equipment, made him an ideal interview candidate.Geoff is also a keen sailor with a passion for boating, which has ensured hehas had his eye on most new developments in the sector.

From Trade-a-Boat Issue424, Mar 2012.


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