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Japanese Shipping Company Will Build the World’s First Battery-Electric Tanke

Time : 2020.05.20

Asahi Shipping, a major Japanese provider of marine transportation services, announced on March 27 that it will be operating the world’s first zero-emission tanker in the first quarter of 2022. The company has ordered two battery-powered tankers from its joint venture e5 Lab, which was established with Exeno Yamamizu, MOL, and Mitsubishi. In terms of specifications, these tankers feature a lithium-ion battery with a base capacity of 3,500 kilowatt-hours for powering the propulsion system. Their storage capacity is 1,300 cubic meters. The construction of the two vessels that will be delivered to Asahi is scheduled for completion in March 2022 and March 2023 respectively.

Countries around the world have made curbing emissions from on-road vehicles a key initiative over the recent years. This global drive in greening the land-based transportation sector also has a positive spillover effect on the maritime and aviation sectors. In this respect, Asahi seems to position itself as the frontrunner in the maritime shipping industry by building vessels that are not hybrid, but wholly battery-electric. Rather than making small fixes to make its ships appear more environment friendly, Asahi might be attempting to implement a much bolder vision of substantially scaling back the production of greenhouse gases by its core businesses and instigate a real change across the entire industry.

International trade is primarily conducted through maritime shipping, which accounts for around 90% of the global transportation. A large-tonnage vessel such as a container ship or an oil tanker can emit as much greenhouse gases and air pollution as thousands of moving trucks during its operation. According to a 2014 study by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the maritime shipping industry produces approximately 940 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and contributes to 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, developing clean energy technologies for powering ships is a highly effective means of cutting down carbon emissions worldwide.

Recognizing that maritime shipping is one of the major polluting industries, IMO as a UN agency has devised a strategy that aims to lower the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050. Asahi, on the other hand, is pursuing the building of electric tankers on its own initiative and is anticipated to take the title of being the first company to do so.

The two electric tankers are built according to the “e5 tanker” design that was unveiled by e5 Lab in 2019. The lithium-ion battery system that powers the e5 tankers has a base capacity of 3,500 kilowatts. Furthermore, these vessels can store up to 1,300 cubic meters of liquid and travel up to 11 knots. The development process has officially moved from the design phase to the production phase thanks to the order from Asahi. The first of the two tankers will be completed and delivered in March 2022, and the second will follow suit in the same month of 2023. Once in service, the e5 tankers will produce none of the noise, vibration, and smoke that are typical for this kind of vessels (i.e., zero emission for carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur oxide).

Additionally, e5 Lab has introduced automated equipment and smart technologies based on the Internet of Things to assist the crew on board in various tasks such as loading and unloading cargoes. These additional features not only lessen the burden on the crew but also seek to mitigate the effects of the shrinking and aging labor force in the maritime shipping industry.

Asahi has not revealed the maximum distance that the e5 tankers can travel before recharging. A preliminary assessment using the available information indicates that the range is limited even though the battery system of these ships is roughly equivalent to 50 units of Tesla’s automotive battery packs. After all, they are designed for transporting a much heavier load than trucks. Asahi will probably deploy its electric tankers first in domestic waters. When they dock for delivering and receiving goods, they can also be connected to a charging station to replenish their batteries. To charge up an electric vessel of this size will probably take at least 12 hours, assuming that the direct-current, fast-charging battery charging station is comparable to a Tesla Supercharger station and can supply up to 250 kilowatts.

A tanker can spend nearly a day at the harbor to unload and load its content. Mooring for resupply and maintenance usually lasts up to 10 hours as well. Hence, the time for charging the huge battery for driving propulsion seems reasonable by comparison. Asahi’s electric tankers should have no issues transporting goods along the domestic sea lanes if every major port in Japan has a supporting charging station.

Hydrogen fuel cell is another green energy solution that has been applied to the maritime sector. For example, Zemship, a 100-person passenger ship that runs on fuel cells, entered service in 2008 in Germany. This vessel has been operating on the artificial lakes within the city of Hamburg, ferrying tourists from one side to the other. However, there are still many obstacles to overcome before the fuel cell technology can be scaled up for maritime shipping.

Passenger vehicles and scooters that run on batteries are now common sights on our roads. As various transportation systems are increasingly electrified, the question we should be asking ourselves is whether there will be enough supply of lithium-ion batteries to meet the growing demand from the expanding range of applications.


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