Home' Baird Maritime : October 2011 Contents It is almost 200 years ago exactly since
Scotsman Henry Bell's 'Comet' made
history as Europe's first steam ship --
coal-powered of course.
The speed and innovation of ship design
in the following three decades was
astounding. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's
giant 'Great Britain', for instance, in 1843
was the largest ship ever built and the first
propeller-driven vessel, again fuelled by coal.
Brunel, in his short but spectacular
career, not only proved the sceptics wrong
but did it in a superb way. A steamship,
they said, would never be able to carry
enough coal to leave space for cargo. In
thinking small for small vessels, they were
correct, but Brunel was way ahead of them,
thinking big enough to change the
available cargo deadweight as an
appreciable percentage of the vessel's
More power came next in 1860, in the
form of the triple expansion engine,
designed by another Scotsman, proving
once again that in Scotland the weather
was so bad and the women were so fierce
that the locals just had to be innovative.
Around Europe coal was in abundance,
and as soon as the Suez Canal was opened in
1869 and coaling stations appeared globally,
steamships rapidly traversed the world, as
both commercial and military vessels.
Alas, coal had some problems. The key
one for a ship-based fuel was the large space
needed for coal bunkers. Hence by the 1950s,
with oil was in abundance and relatively
cheap, almost all ships had moved to oil
fuels, which could be stowed under the cargo
holds in the double bottoms, and used for
either steam or diesel-powered propulsion.
There are two-coal fired ships in Australia
that run between Weipa and Gladstone, but
these are 30-year-old designs.
Now in 2011, as the oil supply
diminishes, therefore becoming very
expensive, the dynamics of ships fuels
continues to change.
All the recent alternative fuel dialogue
has focussed on LNG or dual-fuel
LNG/diesel, but is it the panacea for
reducing carbon dioxide?
According to Jesper Aagesen of Lloyd's
Register, LNG's potential to reduce CO2
emissions is doubtful.
"The combination of methane escape
during extraction and methane slip during
combustion, as well as the overall energy
needs of the LNG supply chain, need to be
further investigated to adequately claim that
the LNG can reduce greenhouse gas
emissions on a like-for-like comparison with
HFO," he says in May's edition of Horizon.
King coal's comeback?
So should coal be re-investigated as a
viable alternative? Is it realistic for a coal
export ship to use its own cargo, at least for
an export leg?
There are plenty of examples of ships
using up their own cargo. LNG ships for
instance use the "boil-off" from the LNG.
In Papua New Guinea coastal traders use
crude coconut oil compressed from copra.
In Vanuatu, I witnessed a coastal livestock
vessel propelled by a fuel derived mainly
Coal has been ignored for the last three
decades and carries the perception of being
unacceptable environmentally. It is time to
re-assess its potential. Consider the
• One tonne of bunker oil generates
13.56kW at a cost of around US$645 (4.75
cents per kW). One tonne of coal
generates 9.23kW at a cost of around
US$120 (1.3 cents per kW).
• To generate the same quantity of steam,
coal imposes typically one-third of the
cost of Bunker C and one-fifth of the cost
• Coal is easily combustible and produces
high energy for propulsion and for
• Coal is safer to store than liquid or gas
fuels and is less vulnerable to attack by
terrorists or hostile powers.
• Coal is easily distributed worldwide.
• There is no danger of coal running short
for the next 150 years.
• The Parsons steam turbine and other
systems using coal to fire turbine electric
shaft drives offer substantial potential
cost savings over traditional fuels for
• It is technologically feasible to design and
install propulsion systems aboard
ocean-going vessels that can convert coal
into a clean fuel, free of particulates yet
suitable for combustion in standard
combustion turbines of the type used in
aviation and for electric power generation.
• As an alternative, coal could be processed
on land to manufacture synthetic natural
gas that, after compression, could be
loaded onto ships for use as a fuel.
Speaking with some clever engineers
in the last few weeks about this subject,
they feel that coal has enormous potential
as a ship fuel, now that the dynamics of
fuel prices have once again raised its
profile. They also agreed unanimously
that the efficiency of clean coal systems
can be improved.
The BBC brought to life Neil Munro's
excellent essays of Para Handy, Master
Mariner extraordinaire, in command of the
coal fired steamship 'Vital Spark'. Para
Handy was totally convinced that the more
smoke coming out of a coal-fired boiler, the
better that life was. Furthermore it gave
"the poor folk that lived ashore" an
impression of great speed for his
single-hatch, six-knot "puffer".
Unfortunately, negative perceptions of
ship funnels belching smoke from coal
boilers are still with us. In reality we should
be focussing on what we have as opposed
to that we haven't got, and we have plenty
IS COAL THE VITAL SPARK?
With STUART BALLANTYNE
THE THOUGHTS OF A
October 2011 BAIRD MARITIME
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