New Articles

Balancing Ambitious IMO Targets with Available Solutions 

battery Entrepreneurs are shaking up industry that carries ocean shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Balancing Ambitious IMO Targets with Available Solutions 

Examining responsibility shift, cost-effective alternatives, and innovative battery tech in shipping 

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has significantly changed its emissions reduction targets, shifting towards a more ambitious goal of achieving net-zero emissions as close to 2050 as possible. By 2030, member nations have committed to sourcing 5% to 10% of the energy used to power ships from zero to near-zero emission fuels and technologies. These changes vary based on each country’s development classification and economic impact of the maritime sector. 

While these revised targets demonstrate a stronger commitment to emissions reduction, they also raise concerns about the availability and feasibility of alternative fuels. And as the responsibility for decarbonization shifts to member participants and shipowners, there is a growing realization that there are few cost-effective tools and practical solutions for reducing emissions in the shipping industry. To gain momentum in reducing shipping-sector emissions, a collaborative, multi-faceted approach is needed to prioritize research and development of low-cost and accessible technologies. 

Reassigning the Burden 

The shift of responsibility from the IMO to individual nations and shipowners has raised concerns regarding the effectiveness of global rules in achieving emissions reduction targets. While differentiated responsibilities based on development and the economic importance of shipping may provide flexibility, critics argue that this moves away from a stringent global rule and poses challenges to keeping global warming below the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. It calls into question the level of commitment and consistency among associated participants in implementing robust measures to decarbonize their shipping sectors. 

Improving hydrodynamics, enacting energy efficiency measures, and lowering cruising speeds can reduce fuel consumption, but cost-effective alternative fuels are essential to making real progress. The options currently under consideration, such as ammonia, methanol, and hydrogen, still face challenges regarding availability, safe implementation, and carbon-neutral production. These alternatives also require significant production capacity before they can be widely adopted as viable solutions for carbon reduction. Liquid natural gas has been proposed as an interim solution, but that still leaves the industry reliant on fossil fuels and requires shipowners to install emission scrubbing systems. 

Inexpensive Tools for Decarbonization 

One potential avenue for partial emissions reduction is battery storage, which offers a range of benefits. Battery systems can be used for peak shaving at sea, kicking in when more power is needed than can be provided by one engine, but less than generated by two. Battery power can be used for low-speed arrival and departure, reducing the need for ships to switch fuels when approaching port. And batteries can also be used for hotel loads, eliminating the need for diesel generators. 

But what batteries are suitable? Lithium-ion batteries, despite their widespread use, have certain drawbacks related to cost, flammability, and toxicity. Recent high-profile battery fires on ro-ros and cargo ships are making shipowners and insurers reassess the risks posed by these batteries, highlighting the need for alternative technologies that offer improved safety, environmental sustainability, and performance. Safer options such as flow batteries are too bulky for use on ships, taking away from available cargo space. Fortunately, startups and researchers are working on options that combine safety with high energy densities, and with investment, commercializing these alternatives will allow the shipping industry to accelerate its transition toward net-zero emissions while mitigating the concerns associated with lithium-ion. 

Striking the Balance 

There’s an axiom that goes “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” meaning it’s better to do something useful now rather than wait for a perfect solution that may never arrive. With that in mind, the shipping industry should look to strike a balance between its 2050 aspirations and the availability of realistic solutions. While the urgency to combat climate change necessitates bold goals, waiting until a perfect solution is available could put decarbonization efforts further behind schedule. Implementing smaller, incremental changes as they become available will help reduce emissions sooner than later. 

 The shipping industry must allocate resources to support the simultaneous exploration of alternative fuels, advanced propulsion systems, and battery energy storage solutions to bridge the gap between 2023 and 2050. By investing in research and development, the industry can unlock new possibilities and pave the way for innovative technologies that can revolutionize the sector’s decarbonization efforts. These investments will contribute to meeting ambitious targets and foster economic growth and competitiveness in the evolving clean energy landscape. 

Mukesh Chatter is the CEO of Alsym Energy, a technology company developing a low-cost, high-performance rechargeable battery chemistry that is free of lithium and cobalt. 



Charting a Course to Battery-Powered Ships 

In the global movement to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, one sector remains largely overlooked: maritime trade. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, ocean-going ships carry more than 80% of world trade by volume and are projected to contribute 17% of man-made carbon emissions by 2050. Yet the decarbonization of maritime vessels lags severely behind the electrification of on-road vehicles. 

To address this issue, the International Maritime Organization has set an ambitious target of cutting carbon emissions from ocean shipping by at least 50% by 2050. For any chance of achieving this goal, the shipping sector will need large-scale adoption of alternative energy sources. So far, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have been the most widely used technology for electrifying the world’s cargo ships, but they’re far from a perfect solution. Here’s a look at the potential of battery-hybrid freighters for reducing carbon emissions, and the technological advances the shipping industry will need to achieve decarbonization. 

 The Future Is Battery-Powered 

Of the zero-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels available on the market, battery systems may be the most promising. A 2022 study by the University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found electric power in the transportation sector to be typically five times more energy-efficient than alternative fuels such as green hydrogen and ammonia.  

 The recent electrification of passenger boats and smaller cargo ships gives us a preview of how battery systems can greatly reduce maritime carbon emissions. Denmark’s ferry Ellen offsets 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year and transports passengers to their destination 15 minutes faster than her fossil fuel-powered counterpart. 

 Switching to battery technology not only eliminates greenhouse gas emissions, it may also help shipping companies cut costs. Due to rising fossil fuel prices and new carbon taxes on marine shipping, ocean freight will no longer be as cost-effective as it used to be. In contrast, battery-powered ships require less maintenance and fewer engineers on board, reducing operations costs. 

 Maritime battery technology is only set to improve in the coming years. Startups are developing ways to make maintenance even more convenient, like a system for replacing individual battery cells when they die rather than an entire battery pack. Others are making battery systems the size of shipping containers for use on smaller cargo vessels, which not only travel longer and farther on electric power but also can access more ports than full-sized freight ships. In light of these recent advances, shipping companies can expect higher returns than ever when they switch to electric-powered vessels. 

 The Limitations of Lithium-Ion 

 Considering the progress so far, what’s stopping ocean shipping from going green? One major obstacle is the lithium-ion technology used to power a majority of electric ships. While they are the most energy-dense and commercially mature type of battery on the market, lithium-ion batteries pose major risks to maritime applications. 

 Runaway battery fires at sea tend to be catastrophic, even more so than those on land. Before a lithium-ion cell in thermal runaway actually catches on fire, it releases toxic gasses such as hydrogen fluoride and carbon monoxide. These flammable vapors may spread throughout a ship for hours before the point of combustion, culminating in a huge explosion that destroys cargo and puts crew members’ lives at risk. Traditional fire suppression systems are not effective at stopping battery fires, which do not require oxygen to burn and can be exacerbated by seawater. 

 Companies have been working on features to make Li-ion batteries safer — better cooling systems; separation between cells to prevent mass thermal runaway — but lithium-ion batteries have already caused significant damage to the marine shipping industry. According to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, fire and explosion accidents were the top cause of loss on marine insurance claims in 2021. AGCS and other insurance experts have identified lithium-ion batteries as a significant source of such fires and a growing risk for maritime shippers’ investments. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard has issued warnings about transporting lithium-ion batteries at all, let alone using the technology to power shipping. 

 What’s Next: A Better Battery 

 Battery technology will continue to improve over time, but lithium-ion chemistry in particular poses too high a fire risk for large-scale adoption by marine shippers. To reach the International Maritime Organization’s decarbonization targets, shipping companies need a power source just as energy-dense and far safer. The company that develops a non-flammable battery chemistry will turn the tide of maritime carbon emissions. 

Mukesh Chatter is the CEO of Alsym Energy, a technology company developing a low-cost, high-performance rechargeable battery chemistry that is free of lithium and cobalt.