The Future of Maritime Sustainability: How Will Electric and Autonomous Ships Shape the Industry?

Hello Maritime Enthusiasts,

As we plunge into the new era of technology, the maritime industry is at a crossroads. On one hand, we have an urgent need to implement sustainability measures due to increasing environmental concerns. On the other, we’re witnessing a rapid influx of technology like electric propulsion and autonomous ships that promise to revolutionize our industry.

So, here is a question for all of us to ponder:

How will the development and implementation of electric and autonomous ships shape the future of maritime sustainability?

Key Discussion Points:

  1. Electrification of Ships - Battery technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Will we see entire fleets go electric? What are the challenges and opportunities?
  2. Autonomous Ships - How will the shift towards automation affect crewing needs, safety, and efficiency?
  3. Regulatory Hurdles - With new technology comes new regulation. What regulatory challenges do we need to anticipate?
  4. Environmental Impact - Ultimately, how will these technologies contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of the maritime industry?
  5. Investment and Economy - Will the adoption of these technologies be cost-effective in the long run?

Thanks Tural, great question.

I want to approach this question differently. While we are focusing on improvements that autonomous ships will bring, particularly in terms of sustainability, I would also like to point out that there are going to be new challenges associated with this transition that need to be addressed.

For this reason, I am going to list Top 10 positive and Top 10 risks associated with transition towards autonomous vessels:

TOP 10 Positive Impacts

  1. Safety: Autonomous ships can reduce the risk of accidents caused by human error, which is a leading factor in maritime incidents. Advanced sensors, computer vision, and AI systems can help ships navigate safely, avoid collisions, and respond to emergencies more effectively.
  2. Cost Efficiency: Autonomous ships can operate 24/7 without the need for crew rest, resulting in lower labor costs. Additionally, they can optimize routes, speeds, and fuel consumption to reduce operational expenses.
  3. Environmental Benefits: Autonomous ships can optimize routes and speeds to minimize fuel consumption and emissions, contributing to a greener and more sustainable maritime industry.
  4. Increased Capacity: Autonomous ships can be designed with optimized cargo storage and handling systems, potentially increasing cargo capacity compared to traditional vessels.
  5. Reduced Piracy Risk: With no crew on board, autonomous ships are less vulnerable to piracy and other security threats.
  6. Data and Analytics: Autonomous ships generate vast amounts of data, which can be used to improve overall fleet performance, maintenance, and route planning through data analytics and machine learning.
  7. Flexibility and Reliability: Autonomous ships can operate in harsh weather conditions and remote areas, where it may be challenging or dangerous for human crews.
  8. Reduced Human Fatigue: Eliminating the need for crew members to be on board for extended periods reduces the risk of human fatigue, which can affect decision-making and safety.
  9. Improved Navigation: Advanced autonomous navigation systems can navigate ships more precisely, potentially reducing congestion in busy ports and waterways.
  10. Global Trade: Autonomous ships can facilitate more efficient global trade by reducing transit times and improving the reliability of shipping schedules.

TOP 10 Risks/Issues

  1. Technological Challenges: Developing and implementing the necessary technology for autonomous ships, including advanced sensors, robust AI algorithms, and secure communication systems, can be complex and costly.
  2. Regulatory Hurdles: The maritime industry is heavily regulated, and adapting existing regulations to accommodate autonomous ships can be a slow and challenging process. Ensuring that these vessels meet safety and environmental standards is critical.
  3. Cybersecurity Risks: Autonomous ships are vulnerable to cyberattacks, which could compromise their navigation systems, communication, and overall safety.
  4. Loss of Jobs: Widespread adoption of autonomous ships could lead to job displacement for traditional seafarers, potentially causing economic and social issues in the maritime sector.
  5. Initial Investment: Retrofitting existing ships with autonomous technology or building entirely new autonomous vessels can require significant upfront investments, which may not be feasible for all operators.
  6. Limited Decision-Making in Complex Situations: While autonomous systems excel in routine tasks, they may struggle to make complex, nuanced decisions that require human judgment, especially in unpredictable or emergency situations.
  7. Public Trust and Perception: Trust in the safety and reliability of autonomous ships will need to be established among regulators, the public, and industry stakeholders, which can take time.
  8. Environmental Impact: While autonomous ships have the potential to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, their production, maintenance, and eventual disposal can have environmental impacts.
  9. Liability and Insurance: Determining liability in the event of an accident involving an autonomous ship can be complicated, which can affect insurance and legal aspects of the industry.
  10. Maintenance and Repairs: Maintaining and repairing advanced autonomous systems at sea or in remote areas can be challenging and may require specialized skills and equipment.
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Electrification of vessels, even though, is one of the paths to decarbonization of maritime industry, at the moment is far from being commercially viable for long distance voyages.

The main reason is battery capacity is not nearly enough, batteries are expensive to manufacture / require rare earth metals to produce, and pose certain dangers such as causing fires.

A currently functional example of an autonomous & electric cargo ship as proposed here is Yara Birkeland. Yara has a battery capacity of 6.8MWh using traditional lithium-based batteries (as found in electric cars). Lithium batteries have many advantages, as they can pack more energy in less space. In terms of electric propulsion she has electric motors driving 2 azimuth pods (2x 900 kW) and 2 tunnel thrusters (2x 700 kW). If we were to calculate the total power consumption of these thrusters:

(2×900 kW)+(2×700 kW)=1800 kW+1400 kW=3200 kW=3.2 MW

The battery capacity was: 6.8MWh if we divide it by consumption 6.8/3.2= 2.125 hours

The service speed of Yara is 6 knots (11km/h), if we multiply by 2.125 hours, we can see that she can travel around 23 km distance. Which is enough, considering her typical route: Herøya–Brevik, which is approximately 7 nautical miles (13 km).


There are alternative batteries being considered for maritime applications, as well as a hybrid (battery/diesel) approach that seems more suitable for longer distance voyages.

In the article: “Assessing the potential of hybrid energy technology to reduce exhaust emissions from global shipping”, author Stephen Turnock considers two new battery alternatives: Vanadium Redox flow cells & Sodium Nickel Chloride batteries.

Let’s focus on Vanadium Redox batteries. This battery type is quite promising, because it can store large amounts of energy. In a nutshell: The battery has two tanks filled with liquid solutions. One tank has vanadium ions in a reduced (low oxidation state) form, and the other has vanadium ions in an oxidized (high oxidation state) form.

To make it simpler, it needs a large fluid storage filled with electrolytes. Assuming that we have enough volume to store lots of fluid, it can pack a lot of energy for longer voyages.

Just as a thought experiment, if we could fill the entire capacity of Yara Birkeland (3,200 DWT = 3,200 m^3) with electrolyte fluid required for our Redox flow battery, she can travel around 180nm instead of 12nm.

If we repeat the above calculation with a larger vessel such as Cadiz Knutsen (LNG Carrier) with 77,213 m^3 DWT, we can get a range of 4,300 nautical miles! (assuming Yara-equivalent propulsion)

There are plenty of downsides however, such as Vanadium being a rare earth metal, it would be quite difficult to accumulate enough of it for such massive battery applications.


Segueing into another alternative approach to sustainable source of power for propulsion, Nuclear Energy is making a comeback. Let’s take our conveniently placed example of Cadiz Knutsen. There is a project in Norway, called NuProShip (Nuclear Propulsion of Merchant Ships). The team behind it has come up with a short list of six possible reactor designs that could work in a converted demonstration vessel. They are planning to convert Cadiz Knutsen into a nuclear powered tanker. (not anytime soon, in 2035 by the current proposed timeline).

Theoretically, nuclear power is a great source of green energy that can power a vessel for many years (even beyond their current operational lifetime averages) without having to refuel at all. One consideration is the disposal (cutting the vessel would be difficult, that is true) of the nuclear waste, but there are also advancements here that could lead to safe & environmentally friendly disposal options.

There are significant challenges however, with going nuclear. The biggest one might be regulatory challenges. Many ports do not allow nuclear powered vessels, and public perception needs to change before regulatory bodies can look favorably upon allowing such vessels from approaching different countries & ports. It could take decades before the regulation catches up with the technology (up to 20-30 years). Second challenge is the technical know-how needed to operate such nuclear generators aboard the vessel is quite complex & would need technicians that vessels today do not have onboard. Lastly, the vessels would be at increased risk of piracy, since they would be carrying literal Uranium on board which can be used to create well-bombs.

The nuclear-powered vessels that sail today have some of the highest security possible, such as US navy aircraft carriers or nuclear subs, that are not an easy target for pirates by any means.

Last alternative, and perhaps the one that is considered to have the highest potential, is hydrogen.
There are few companies building hydrogen powered cargo ships, such as the Argo. It is worth noting, the capacity is relatively small at 20 TEU. Nike has also recently launched a Hydrogen-powered barge this year (albeit smaller capacity).

Hydrogen could be one of the potential ways the maritime industry can go about clean energy. As the only emission is water (2H2 (g)+O2 ​ (g)→2H2O(g)). It is yet to prove its feasibility in terms of cost / effectiveness & cost of switching the entire infrastructure (of bunkering) to hydrogen would be a tremendous effort. But it could be necessary, as we move away from fossil fuels (or as they will run out soon enough!)


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To add further on Carbon:

  • The real risks may be due the SOx (Sulfur Oxide) emissions more so than carbon.

There was an article published in the China Daily Asia on 20 May 2016, titled “Ship emissions choking the region”.

The article claimed that “Cargo ships typically use highly polluting bunker fuel, which is comprised of around 3 % sulphur – much higher than ultra-low sulphur diesel. One large container ship at sea emits the same amount of sulphur oxide gases as 50 million diesel-burning cars.”

These calculations were re-done in 2019, and the real number is closer to 19 million cars.

Especially when near ports & cities, this means that the vessels passing by can contribute significantly to a city’s air pollution. This is why, EU imposed regulations on sulphur in fuel when near ports: "The EU’s 0.1 % sulphur in fuel requirement while berthing in European harbours is a very powerful and simple tool to dramatically reduce sulphur emissions. The process is fairly simple as only vessels’ auxiliary engines need to switch fuel. "

So, the more urgent question may be rather than decarbonization, how can we achieve desulfurization of the fuel used in vessels?

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Source: Does one ship pollute as much as 50 million cars? – Cadmatic

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