Last week, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) committed to a Green House Gas reduction strategy for the global shipping industry. This agreement closed a significant gap in the 2015 Paris Agreement that excluded a sector which contributes ~3% of global emissions. In this post I will be looking at some of the implications that the new IMO strategy has for the FMRI programme, both in terms of our delivery journey and the design of future research vessels.
Powering future research
Research ships are and will continue to be an essential component of marine research infrastructure. They offer unique capabilities such as the ability to deploy scientists to undertake ‘hands-on’ research in remote locations. However, just as the shipping industry has identified the need to change, next-generation research vessels will also have to embrace new methods of propulsion if they are to achieve the UKRI target of net-zero operational carbon emissions by 2040.
A key challenge is that current candidates for the future energy solution are less energy dense than marine gas oil (MGO). This means that more space will have to be dedicated to energy storage if the ship is to have the same performance as current vessels. There is therefore a choice: either research ships will have to get bigger to accommodate the fuel or the science and technical party onboard will need to get smaller.
There are significant drawbacks to increasing the physical dimensions of research ships. Doing so increases the energy required to operate the vessel and can limit where the ship can berth. Which leads us to explore how to reduce the number of people on a ship without adversely affecting science.
Innovating for impact
The FMRI programme will create the space to innovate in technologies that increase the automation of ship-based activity and enable remote participation in ship-based science. Increasing bandwidth could allow shore-based scientists to engage in real-time with a smaller onboard science party. Technologies such as augmented reality could even allow shore-based engineers to instruct broadly-skilled onboard technicians in the repair of specialist equipment, reducing the requirement for some engineers to go to sea ‘just in case’. Fully-automated launch-and-recovery systems (LARS) are already in use with some operators, reducing the demand on technician time. Developing commercial supply chains around FMRI innovation will also increase the reliability of equipment, thereby ensuring that science expeditions deliver maximum impact. FMRI investment will ensure that research ships can continue to deliver world class science while achieving UKRI’s net-zero vision by 2040.
Managing risk for responsible investment
An essential task for any programme director is to effectively manage uncertainty, otherwise known as risk management. It is vital process in ensuring that public money is invested responsibly and delivers maximum value. The choice of future energy solution for research vessels is one such risk.
There are already a range of alternative fuels that could underpin the transition to net-zero and more may become available as commercial demand drives innovation in this field. However, it is important to recognise that the UK research fleet is not large enough to be a trend-setter in this area. Research vessel operations rely on the global logistics and supply chains that support the commercial shipping industry.
In order to responsibly manage public investment, FMRI will therefore allow industry to set the trend in its approach to low-emission propulsion technologies. This will mitigate the risk of delivering infrastructure that has excessively high operational costs or restricted operations. The new IMO strategy is an important first step in setting direction for the shipping industry and driving a transition to clean technologies that FMRI can build upon.