Battery powered container ships

Preface. You’d need 100,000 metric tons of batteries taking 40% of cargo space to go from Asia to Europe in 31 days on an 18,000 TEU container ship, and it is hard to imagine how or how long it would take to recharge these batteries. In comparison, the same ship just needs 4,650 metric tons of diesel fuel.

At some point of oil decline, wooden sailing vessels will come back in style. It’s well past time to plant more forests in anticipation, since trees take decades to grow, and conventional oil peaked in 2018 (EIA. 2020. International Energy Statistics. Petroleum and other liquids. Data Options. U.S. Energy Information Administration.).

Forests also remove CO2, probably more than batteries when their full life cycle of mining, fabrication, and so on are considered.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Smil, V. 2019. Electric container ships are stuck on the horizon. Batteries still can’t scale up to power the world’s biggest vessels. IEEE spectrum.

Just about everything you wear or use around the house once sat in steel boxes on ships whose diesel engines propel them from Asia, emitting particulates and carbon dioxide. Surely, you would think, we can do better.

After all, we’ve had electric locomotives for more than a century and high-speed electric trains for more than half a century, and recently we have been expanding the global fleet of electric cars. Why not get electric container ships? Actually, the first one should begin to operate this year: the Yara Birkeland, built by Marin Teknikk, in Norway, is not only the world’s first electric-powered, zero-emissions container ship but also the first autonomous commercial vessel.

But don’t write off giant diesel-powered container ships and their critical role in a globalized economy just yet. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation that explains why.

Containers come in different sizes, but most are the standard twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU)—rectangular prisms 6.1 meters (20 feet) long and 2.4 meters wide. The first small container ships of the 1960s carried mere hundreds of TEUs; now Maersk’s Triple-E class ships load 18,000 TEUs, and OOCL Hong Kong holds the record, at 21,413. At the “super slow steaming,” fuel-saving speed of 16 knots, these ships can make the journey from Hong Kong to Hamburg in 31 days.

Now look at the Yara Birkeland. It will carry just 120 TEU, its service speed will be 6 knots, its longest intended operation will be 30 nautical miles—between Herøya and Larvik, in Norway—and its batteries will deliver 7 to 9 megawatt hours. Today’s state-of-the-art diesel container vessels thus carry 150 times as many boxes over distances 400 times as long at speeds three to four times as fast as the pioneering electric ship can handle.

What would it take to make an electric ship that can carry 18,000 TEUs? In a 31-day trip, today’s efficient diesel vessel burns 4,650 metric tons of fuel (bunker or diesel), each ton packing 42 gigajoules. That’s an energy density of about 11,700 watt-hours per kilogram, versus 300 Wh/kg for today’s lithium-ion batteries, a nearly 40-fold difference.

The total fuel demand for the trip is about 195 terajoules, or 54 gigawatt-hours. Large diesels (and those in the ships are the largest we have) are about 50 percent efficient, hence their useful propulsive energy demand is about 27 GWh. To match that demand, large electric motors operating at 90 percent efficiency would need about 30 GWh of electricity.

Load the ship with today’s best commercial Li-ion batteries (300 Wh/kg) and still it would have to carry about 100,000 metric tons of them to go nonstop from Asia to Europe in 31 days. Those batteries alone would take up about 40 percent of maximum cargo capacity, an economically ruinous proposition, never mind the difficulties involved in charging and operating the ship. And even if we push batteries to an energy density of 500 Wh/kg sooner than might be expected, an 18,000-TEU vessel would still need nearly 60,000 metric tons of them for a long intercontinental voyage at a relatively slow speed.

The conclusion is obvious. To have an electric ship whose batteries and motors weighed no more than the fuel (about 5,000 metric tons) and the diesel engine (about 2,000 metric tons) in today’s large container vessels, we would need batteries with an energy density more than 10 times as high as today’s best Li-ion units.

That’s a tall order indeed: In the past 70 years the energy density of the best commercial batteries hasn’t even quadrupled.

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6 Responses to Battery powered container ships

  1. hugh owens says:

    The economics of long distance transportation using batteries doesn’t add up but that doesn’t seem to stop these technofantasies from proliferating. I recently responded to a Mother Earth News article on battery powered tractors. I refuted it using the example of my 8400 lb tractor with a 30 gal fuel tank. A full tank weighs 210 lb. A battery equivalent to the diesel energy in that tank would weigh 8400 lbs, doubling the weight of the tractor! Impossible for many reasons not the least because the tractor would have to be built much heavier just to carry the additional weight, not to also mention where to store those 4 tons on the tractor. Ted Williams once said, “If you don’t think too good, then don’t think too much.”

  2. Alan Kirk says:

    check out this wood container”ship” being built

  3. DavidS says:

    Thanks Alice – I very much appreciate the wide range of topics your blog covers and your excellent analysis on the impossibility of transitioning to a renewable powered industrial society. After arriving at the Oil Drum nearly 20 years ago, I have built up a long list of bookmarks but yours seems to have gravitated to the top of my list.

    I’m not one that believes we can reverse time and step back through the decades to something that looks like a pre-fossil fuel world complete with wooden sailing ships and a small farm lifestyle. Even if we could an 18th century lifestyle with population of around 600 million was not sustainable. After all it was unsustainable demand for timber for ships that led to deforestation of much of the UK and the emergence of coal as a substitute and hence the industrial revolution. Even 18th century plough based farming was not sustainable.

    I can’t see any way to get from 8+ billion to <1 billion population in any planned descent- not in the decade or two before oil largely disappears.

    I feel civilization will simply be overwhelmed, admittedly a very pessimistic view, but then after noting the many failed predictions on the Oil Drum of an imminent apocalypse, I am strangely optimistic that we can postpone the worst of the collapse for a decade or even two, particularly in the West.

    Of course predictions are difficult, especially about the future – but having accepted the inevitability of whats facing us, I find myself mostly pondering how events will pan out – I'd be very interested to read any thoughts you can share on this.

  4. vegeholic says:

    Timely and relevant post from Mr. Smil. As our host knows, seeking to continue business as usual with renewable energy is a hopeless pipe dream. What will happen, slowly at first, then all of a sudden, is a vast reduction in the volume and mass of goods that need to be shipped across oceans. As this reaches a sustainable level, then the wooden sailing ships, and maybe an occasional Yara Birkeland will provide the needed locomotion. The revolutionary change that everyone will notice, however, will not be the change in boat fuel, it will be the elimination of most imports (and exports). Now would be a good time to prepare for increased self-sufficiency, and, as suggested, plant some trees.

  5. Darian S says:

    Even if the batteries could be developed, batteries are not energy sources, so at the port the energy would have to come from somewhere, more than likely fossil fuels. And fossil fuels are peaking.