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Science Saturday ETH Zurich charts course for emission-free shipping

Container ships in the US

Ship­ping cur­rently ac­counts for around 3% of global CO2 emis­sions

(Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Electric motors and new fuel cells powered by ammonia or hydrogen offer the best potential for the shipping industry which is seeking to become carbon neutral, a Swiss study has found. Shipping accounts for 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. 

Researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) studied shipping activities in the North and Baltic Seas on behalf of the Ger­man ship­ping com­pany Reederei Nord to investigate solutions towards creating zero-emissions maritime operations. 

Lead author Pet­rissa Eckle and her ETH Zurich team said zero-​emission propul­sion sys­tems in the form of elec­tric mo­tors, fuel cells or com­bus­tion en­gines powered by am­mo­nia held the greatest po­ten­tial in the near fu­ture.

They said the most suit­able source of en­ergy de­pends on the type of ship and the length of the route. 

“In the North and Baltic Seas, ships with elec­tric propul­sion sys­tems are already be­ing used for short dis­tances, which makes sense,” Eckle said in a statementexternal link

For long dis­tances, am­mo­nia would be a suit­able op­tion but due to its tox­icity, its use as a fuel is not per­mit­ted. Testing will soon begin on the first cargo vessels to investigate the possibilities of liquifying and transporting hy­dro­gen. 

“The next step is to run pi­lot pro­jects to find an­swers to all the un­re­solved ques­tions. We need ship­ping com­pan­ies to test ves­sels with emission-​free propul­sion sys­tems,” Eckle said.

The ETH Zurich report was based on external studies and expert interviews, focusing on the North and Baltic Seas, to investigate routes, the ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture, sus­tain­ab­il­ity and the cost of new fuel op­tions.

Ship­ping cur­rently ac­counts for around 3% of global CO2 emis­sions, making it one of the biggest emitters along­side road and air trans­port. In­ter­na­tional mer­chant ships and large cargo freight­ers are re­spons­ible for most emis­sions. 

An alliance of 70 companies within the maritime, energy and finance sectors, known as the Getting to Zero Coalition,external link supported by governments and international organisations is seeking to introduce zero-emission vessels by 2030.

ETH Zurich/Keystone-SDA/sb

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