Beyond the Iron: Batteries on Board

In September 2017 SEACOR Marine and Mexmar announced a deal with Kongsberg Maritime (KM), part of the Norway based Kongsberg Gruppen for a new power system for the SEACOR Maya, an offshore tug and supply vessel. This deal is a manifestation of an important trend toward broader use of electric and hybrid power systems in a wide range of ships.

KM has contracted to provide SEACOR and Mexmar (strategic allies) with a "sophisticated new hybrid power solution" that will assist in "meeting strict environmental regulations by decreasing CO2. NOx and SOx emissions, with the added benefit of reducing operating costs through reduced fuel consumption."

The solution in question is an energy storage system: sometimes in a folksy phrase it is described as “batteries on board.” The system in question is more involved than that phrase may make it sound, coming complete with a customized Energy Control System and the existing Dynamic Positioning (K-Pos DP 22) and Integrated Automatic System. Components of the K-Pos DP 22 include power load monitoring and blackout prevention. In short, the batteries on board are so designed as not to leave the customers dead in the water.

As a Kongsberg release boasts, customers will benefit from a display of all battery data  “including capacity and status, all of which support the operational continuity of SEACOR Maya and improve its ability to maintain position on DP even after a worst-case single thruster or power failure."

The contract includes an option for providing such a solution for a second vessel.


SEACOR Marine manager of engineering, Tim Clerc, said that this hybridized system "has the potential to significantly reduce operational costs while at the same time provide access to new functionality for improved safety and effectiveness of DP operations."

The actual energy storage system within the KM solution comes from Corvus Energy, a company based in British Columbia, Canada established in 2009, that manufactures modular lithium ion battery systems.

 The words of a Corvus press release explain the benefits thus: the Corvus Orca ESS will "not only reduce the environmental footprint of the offshore operations but will also significantly reduce operational costs, including fuel [and] maintenance on the engines."

This deal is the latest indicator not only that "the future is hybrid" but that the future may no longer require waiting.

Full Circle in Norway

Electric shipping was widespread a century ago, roughly from 1890 to 1920, before petroleum rose to dominance.  The Bergen Elektriske Færgeselskap (BEF) company,  founded in 1894, operated a  fleet of electric passenger boats in Bergen harbour, on the west coast of Norway, for years. These boats, which became known affectionately as the Beffens, over time all converted to gasoline, and still later diesel would supplant gasoline.

Beffens are still in operation in Bergen. But technology has come full circle, and the Beffens are once again electrically propelled.

Lithium and Batteries

The 21st century revival of electric shipping, both pure and in hybridized form, has drawn upon advances in battery technology, and those advances may be said to have begun with the lithium-ion battery.

That story kn turn begins with M. Stanley Whittingham, who was studying the chemistry of intercalation (the insertion of a molecule or ion into materials with layered structure) in the 1970s.  Whittingham was working for Exxon at the time, and he experimented with a battery that would use titanium sulfide and lithium metal for its electrodes. This didn’t work well, as titanium sulfide was and is very expensive and can react in unfortunate ways when exposed to air. As to the lithium metal, it also soon proved to be highly reactive and thus impractical.

But Whittingham had unleashed a genie. Intercalation in general and lithium in particular were not to be returned to the bottle. Research soon moved to the use of lithium compounds in batteries, compounds capable of accepting and releasing lithium ions. By the end of that decade, researchers had zeroed in on lithium cobalt oxide as a promising material for the positive electrode of a rechargeable cell. This was the take-off point for the now-ubiquitous lithium ion battery, familiar to users of smartphones, laptops, game controllers, and Teslas.

More recently, it is lithium iron phosphate (LFP) that has successfully scaled for electric and hybrid applications for offshore shipping.  LFP has a solid track record for safety and durability. Indeed, it has been successfully deployed in a lot of industrial contexts in systems from 100 to 500 kWh.

Pushing Parameters

In the early 21st century engineers have proven very creative in developing a variety of lithium-ion batteries, pushing parameters of cost, energy density, power density, safety, and cycle life.

Our story brings us, one last time, to Norway, for early in this decade the oil company Lundin Norway AS entered into a research and development project known as FellowSHIP  with the shipping company Eidesvik, looking into the application of battery technology to maritime shipping.

in 2013 DNV GL installed in an offshore supply vessel, Viking Lady, a lithium-ion battery system from Corvus. Data monitored from that Lady has helped propel further commercial developments.


More recently still, Adler Yacht, a Switzerland based company with its construction sites in Italy, unveiled the Suprema 76 foot motor yacht, a landmark move of the electric and hybrid technology into yachting. The Suprema’s propulsion system consists of two Caterpillar C18 1,150 hp diesel engines, a 170 kWh lithium polymer battery, and two ATE 100 kW e-Units used to control operations and the transitions between the electro-motor and the combustion engine.

Hybridization gives the Suprema an impressive cruising range: a single tank of fuel can last for an entire Atlantic crossing.

A Final Thought

 This January, Caterpillar agreed to provide a “stem to stern” hybrid propulsion system for two vessels for Harbor Docking and Towing, of Houston, Texas.  The vessels themselves are to be designed and built by Washburn & Doughty of Maine.

The benefit to the buyer of such a system? Harbor Docking & Towing get considerable maintenance cost savings, reduced fuel consumption, reduced fuel emissions, and a smaller diesel exhaust fluid tank size.   

As the footprint of hybridization broadens both in harbours and on the open sea, customers will be asking themselves (and their providers): is this the best technology for me? For reasons of environmental compliance and operational efficiency, shouldn’t I get in on hybridization?





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