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World - New materials to make ships more sustainable and less noisy for marine life

Ships have a significant environmental impact during building, operation and when they’re scrapped, but new approaches and composite materials to replace steel – still popular due to its strength and low cost – could make vessels more sustainable, recyclable, and less noisy for marine animals.

Using ships to transport goods contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions, with about 940 million tons of carbon dioxide being released every year. In Europe, maritime shipping is responsible for about 13% of all transport emissions. Shipbuilding itself consumes energy and produces waste at the end of a ship’s life with only some parts of a vessel repurposed.

‘(Ships) are taken to scrapping facilities, most of them in Africa or Asia,’ said Alfonso Jurado Fuentes, head of research and development at TSI, an engineering company specialised in marine activities in Madrid, Spain. ‘Many of these materials are extremely degraded and useless but some of them are used as an important source of raw materials on these continents.’

Building ships that are less heavy is one tactic that can help reduce emissions. Using composite materials such as fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) instead of steel, for example, should reduce a ship’s weight and lower fuel consumption. ‘You have the benefit of consuming less fuel and then emitting less pollutant gases,’ said Matthias Krause from the Center of Maritime Technologies in Hamburg, Germany. ‘That also means less emissions per transported kilogramme of payload.’

Furthermore, using composite materials could extend a ship’s lifetime and therefore reduce resources needed for construction. Steel ships are often damaged by corrosion and repair is eventually no longer possible, which is not a problem when non-metallic materials are used. There is also potential to better reuse vessels made from composite materials as they can be better recycled at the end of their life, says Jurado Fuentes. Whereas about 34% of steel ships are repurposed, it is thought that up to 75% of composite ships could be given a second life.

‘We have been studying different technologies and technical advances to demonstrate that it is feasible to design, build and operate these kinds of vessels.’

Alfonso Jurado Fuentes, TSI, Spain

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