Hybrid Power on the Rivers

Finding alternatives to the heavy fuel oil currently used in cruise and shipping has long been of high importance in the marine industry. The advancements in LNG-powered engines and the improved ability to safely transport and store liquified natural gas (LNG) has pushed LNG-powered cruise ships to the forefront. Many major cruise lines have added LNG-powered ships to the order books including Costa Cruises’ recently launched Smeralda. Cruise operators with a particular need to comply with environmentally conscious guidelines – such as the Polar Code for Arctic and Antarctic expeditions – have pushed this further, with technological firsts in cruise such as Hurtigruten MS Roald Amundsen’s hybrid-electric engine, which propels the vessel on electricity alone for up to half an hour.

Environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional engines are just as important in river cruising. Visiting a large number of heavily populated towns and cities in a single itinerary, river cruise operators have a responsibility to uphold emissions standards. While the smaller size of river vessels means less weight to propel, it also means less space for the engines – all but ruling out LNG-powered engines. Luckily, cruising along the rivers as opposed to out on the oceans does have its benefits. The nature of a river cruise itinerary offers an advantage over most ocean cruises – the ability to stop frequently at port towns to restock, send cruisers on excursions, and ‘recharge’.

In a 2018 article, Maritime Executive explored the feasibility of converting river cruise ships to battery electric propulsion – something that ‘may be possible […] due to the ability to rapidly recharge graphene-based batteries at navigation locks.’ Offering higher electrical conductivity than commonly used alternatives (such as lithium ion batteries), graphene allows for faster-charging cells that are able to deliver very high currents – all of which are perfect characteristics for vehicle engines. While currently used commercially for a number of purposes (including as a coating for a cargo vessel to improve corrosion resistance and decrease metallic paint loss into the ocean), and heralded as a ‘wonder material’, graphene-or-graphene-enhanced batteries are still under development, with no clear deadline for commercial use.

At the close of 2019, IBM announced a ‘new battery discovery’. The discovery utilises three never-before-combined materials to create a chemistry for a new battery. While IBM haven’t released details of what the materials are, they notably exclude standard battery materials nickel and cobalt, which carry particular ethical sourcing and environmental risks. The discovery holds particular significance for electric vehicles due to its low flammability, low cost, and fast charging time. Perhaps the most exciting element for the cruise industry is that the three materials needed can be extracted from seawater.

River cruise has already enjoyed many hybrid power advancements ahead of its ocean counterparts. In 2009, Viking River Cruises released Legend, carrying E-powered Marine Solutions’ (E-MS) Electric Power Pack (E-PP) hybrid diesel-electric engines, reducing noise and vibrations, and lowering emissions by 20%. This was followed by Prestige in 2011 and the Viking Longships class in 2012, and before long had been installed on 26 of Viking’s vessels. E-MS managing director Peter Andersen told World Cruise Industry Review, “[Viking River Cruises] needed a compact and efficient propulsion system that would fit into their really small machinery compartments.” In 2009, the engine took up 20-30% less space than the conventional engine used at the time. Today, over 50 of Viking’s ships are fitted with the E-PP system, as well as four newbuilds from Crystal Cruises.

European river cruise line A-ROSA have joined the race with their E-Motion vessel. Booked to sail the Rhine from spring 2021, E-Motion will feature battery propulsion to be used in a similar manner to Hurtigruten’s MS Roald Amundsen. Where Roald Amundsen primarily uses its electric power for coasting in the most protected areas of the world, E-Motion uses a similar technology to come into port using only electricity, storing surplus power to ensure the journey into harbour is both noiseless and emission-free. This is repeated the following morning – equipped with a shore power connection, the onboard battery can be charged overnight for a seamless, emission-free port exit.

A-ROSA E-Motion

E-Motion also features an innovation in hull optimisation. Patented by the Damen shipyard, the vessel will employ ‘DACS’ air-bubble technology. The technology reduces the resistance between the ship’s hull and the water by generating bubbles across the surface of the hull, and is reported to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 10-15%.

These advancements are new and will take time to spread across the industry. However, the ideas and the possibility are there, as is the drive – fueled daily by impending climate crisis. The cruise industry is making the right moves toward a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future. River cruise is ensuring that it is not left behind ocean and expedition cruising when it comes to hybrid power.

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