30 years with no refuelling and zero CO2 emission. A new, controversial propulsion system for seagoing vessels
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The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has committed maritime operators to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050. Core-Power, a start-up in Singapore, claims to have a solution to achieve this even faster. It proposes that small and ultra-safe nuclear reactors be used to propel ships.
Maritime transport has been fighting for years to reduce its environmental impact. The last major initiative in this area was the IMO 2020 Directive, which provides for an 85% reduction in sulphur oxide emissions. The task seemed quite simple, as there are ready-made technologies to do it.
Maritime operators could choose either to use (more expensive) low-sulphur fuel or to install so-called scrubbers – devices which ‘wash out’ sulphur from the emitted flue gases (this in turn involved the necessity to immobilise the ship for the time of installation).
The Directive caused considerable disruption in the maritime industry at the turn of 2019 and 2020. However, their final effect (and in particular their effect on sea freight prices) is difficult to assess, as a moment later the economy was rocked with even greater force by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Requirements are there, technology is missing
Reducing CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions will be much more complicated than cutting down on sulphur oxides. First of all, because of the scale. Maritime transport generates 14% of the global CO2 emissions from transport. The size of the problem is even better illustrated by the fact that the second largest container shipowner in the world, MSC, is ranked 9th among the largest CO2 emitters in Europe.
Second, there is simply no effective technology yet that could replace fossil fuel propulsion in ships.
Naturally, there have already been some experiments with alternative propulsion systems, with which transport has the greatest experience on land, using electric energy and hydrogen fuel. However, there is an understandable temptation to use nuclear propulsion for such large vessels as ships (as is already the case with military applications).
Chernobyl on waves?
In aircraft carriers or submarines, however, light-water reactors are usually used, whose principle of operation is more or less similar to the infamous reactors used in power plants. Here, of course, the first association comes to mind: Chernobyl, Fukushima. Both of these disasters were caused by the loss of coolant and the melting of the reactor core. No wonder the prospect that 40,000 vessels propelled by similar technology are sailing on our oceans raises concerns.
Marine Molten Salt Reactors (m-MSRs) developed by Core-Power have a completely different operating principle. There is no core inside. Atomic fuel is in liquid form and serves as a cooling agent at the same time. In addition, as the temperature rises, the fuel expands and its reactivity decreases (which entails a drop in temperature). This makes it virtually impossible for the reactor to overheat (as a general rule, it operates at temperatures of 600-900°C, producing enough energy to power the ship’s turbines). There are no moving parts and the reactor operates at normal atmospheric pressure (light-water reactors are pressurized to approximately 150 atmospheres). Theoretically speaking, such a reactor could drive a container ship with a capacity of 24,000 TEU for 30 years with no refuelling.
A highly theoretical solution
Sounds great, doesn’t it? The start-up is very optimistic in its declarations and ensures that it works with world-class specialists in MSR technology. However, no details are given as to the possible date of production launch, price or even dimensions. Either way, we have to admit that this technology, at least in theory, looks very promising. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for its development!