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Sustainability at sea: Decarbonising the cruise industry

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Have you noticed a turning point over the last few months? Whether it's because the COP26 conference is taking place so close to home this year, in Glasgow, or that climate change is becoming all the more evident in our day to day lives, it feels to us that there has been something of a shift from lip-service to reality in terms of sustainability ambitions.

The cruise industry has been ahead of the game in its aspirations, and no cruise line worth its salt will fail to have a hefty document on the subject somewhere on its website, not to mention a strident press release. But is it all just words, or are there specific plans in place?

Plenty is happening right now: ships built to be LNG (liquefied natural gas) powered, for example, are becoming the norm rather than the exception. The Air Bubble Lubrication System helps ships to improve their efficiency and reduce energy losses. The air is blown at a constant rate to form a rigid layer of microbubbles, which reduces the drag and resistance between the ship and the seawater. This can result in a 5% net fuel and emissions saving.

MS Fridtjof Nansen, Hurtigruten's hybrid-powered ship

So whilst cruise lines are widely criticised in the media for apparently not caring about their environmental impact, in fact nothing could be further from the truth - it is of course in their own interest to ensure they plan for a sustainable future. This requires investment and collaboration with some of the finest scientists in the world.

We heard fascinating news last month about a UK-based innovation project awarded to a partnership of interested parties: GE Power Conversion, Ceres Power Ltd, Lloyd's Register and MSC Cruise Management. The aim of the project is to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the maritime sector through cleaner fuels and energy efficiency measures. It focuses on fuel cell system integration into a large ship's power architecture.

Cruise ship shoreside power

The project is part of the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition, funded by the UK Government's Department for Transport, and by industry, and delivered in partnership with Innovate UK. It represents a £20m investment from government, alongside a further £10m from industry to reduce emissions from the maritime sector. The idea is to support the research, design and development of zero emission technology and infrastructure solutions for maritime, and to accelerate decarbonisation in the sector.

So whilst we're not completely clear about what a fuel cell is (despite the fact they have apparently been around since the 19th century), we've understood it is a kind of battery: according to Wikipedia, an electrochemical cell that converts the chemical energy of a fuel (often hydrogen) and an oxidising agent (often oxygen) into electricity. The technology is used in buses and trucks, and has the potential to be used far more widely, for example for marine power.

Meyer Werft Trimaran prototype

At this year's Seatrade cruise industry conference, German shipyard Meyer Werft revealed three new concepts for operational, logistic and energy production on board cruise ships. They included a Trimaran with 10-12,000 lower berths complete with different neighbourhoods, a centralised galley and three towers for accessing the public areas and cabins, not to mention a people mover skirting the upper decks and a Santorini-inspired village with villas located on the aft. Next up, the Helix design, fully powered by batteries, accommodating around 4,000 passengers, and finally a fully battery-driven futuristic river cruise ship.

The cruise industry's march towards decarbonisation is well underway - exciting times indeed.

Edwina Lonsdale
Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and, together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Cruising.

More about Edwina

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