This is Actually Good, But…

I couldn’t resist.

It would be unfair to compare the speed of a great big cargo ship with a fast tea-clipper. [Allegedly the Cutty Sark never carried opium, but she was part of a fleet of fast ships that were, basically, drug runners. Today’s big oil-haulers are also drug runners, I suppose]

It’s also great to see that humanity is, at least, paying some attention to climate change, even if it’s only to save some money before the value of money completely collapses. Oh, did I say that out loud?

The problem of international shipping is much, much, more complicated than can be solved by the addition of some wind-catchers on cargo ships. The underlying system is predicated on just-in-time delivery of supplies, and predictable throughput of cargo. For that, you can’t depend on wind alone. Storing energy on a ship is another issue – do you have electric impellers along with the diesel engines? That takes up valuable cargo space for batteries and generators. I have long felt that humanity should have been working toward developing safe(er) small nuclear decay-powered electrical systems, but that would imperil the US’ nuclear war-making hegemony, so it’s not going to happen. There will be diesel boats long after we’re all dead.


  1. outis says

    Well maybe, but I wonder about the availability of the appropriate isotopes.
    Thermoionic generators (like the ones used in space probes) have either Plutonium 238 or Americium 241. Not so much of either bouncing around, and Am-241 was chosen as a backup after Russia was delinquent (heh) on its promised deliveries of Pu-238.
    Of course, plenty of other stuff available, but I don’t know if that helps. For instance, Sellafield in UK is sitting on 100 tons or so of Pu-239, but I doubt there’s an easy way to knock off that extra neutron (they did want to mix it in regular nuc fuel MOX bars, but the factory that was built for that purpose produced exactly zero of those).
    And so your tag phrase We Are Fucked is yet again bouncing unpleasantly inside my head…

  2. outis says

    Sorry, should be “thermoelectric generators” (seal nasty stuff in a can, get electricity. Wash your hands afterwards).

  3. snarkhuntr says

    I read an article somewhere about a TechBro startup proposing an EV equivalent to an oil tanker – basically a ship carrying nothing but high-energy-density batteries that would charge up in a region with excess power generation and then drive under its own power to a destination with insufficient power generation and sell the electricity at a profit.

    Gotta love techbros. Always thinking outside the box – reinvent the wheel as a modern, efficient cube. “Why has nobody done this before?”

  4. sonofrojblake says

    @3: have you a link to that story? Because my brain is in knots, overloading with intersecting massive flashing neon “NOPE”s.

    “Under its own power”? Electric power? Wasting the resource they’re selling. Why not power the ship with cheap diesel and get the batteries there that way?

    Carrying hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of fully charged batteries across an ocean in ship? What would possibly go wrong? (ONE battery imperfection would make a big fire, and then likely the front would fall off).

    You’re going to sail to a country that doesn’t have the power generation capacity – why do you think their grid will have capacity, or the capability to connect to your ship even if it does?

    Ultimately, why not just get a government incentive to build a power station in country? The UK is being soaked left right and centre by foreigners “building” power stations, and making massive profits even as the completion dates race into the future at more than a year per year.

    Battery expansion. Pirates.

    I mean, these are just the objections that crossed my relatively inexpert mind in the first tenth of a second.

  5. ockhamsshavingbrush says

    @ outis #1
    In theory a good idea, buuuut the efficiency of those thermoelectric generators is abyssmal compared to ye good ol’ internal combustion engine (around 10%; best case should be approx. 15%). So I guess this is not going to happen. The latest container ships have in the ballpark of 80,000 kW, so you would have to generate around 470,000 kW or half a gigwatt of thermal output with an assumed efficiency of 17%.
    And of course the stuff those giant internal cobustion mosters run on is relatively cheap. It’s basically tar that has to be pre-heated before injecting it into the combustion chamber. Imagine the viscosity of Nutella at room temp and you get the idea. And it is chock full of nasties like sulfur, mercury and the like. It’s basically the equivalent to the Canadian tar sands

    @sonofrojblake #4
    Butbutbutbut …it’s “disruptive” or whatever the new buzzword in the business world my be. And yes, such a ship catching fire in one of the ports where it hooks up to the grid would be nasty. You know, HF fumes are not really funny and the fire would be close to unstoppable.

    So I guess I’ll take the baby steps in efficiency increase that you can get from optimizing the propellers, hull and the savings from wind-support.

  6. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#6:
    Bizarre 460-foot “battery tanker” set to ship electrons by 2026

    I can imagine it might be useful for someplace with a disaster, that needs power infrastructure.

    Other than that, it sounds like a return of “never underestimate the bandwidth of a truck full of hard drives.”

  7. says

    Wasn’t it Andrew Tanenbaum in his OS text who said “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon filled with back-up tapes”? Or maybe Knuth? I forget as it was decades ago for me, but I remember having this clear visual of a typical bearded admin driving a rusty, white station wagon along the the NYS Thruway heading for Buffalo at 3 AM, the back filled with tapes in complete disarray.

  8. xohjoh2n says


    …back in the days where the official policy was “be careful of the transnational/international transit, there’s not much of it and it’s expensive.”

  9. sonofrojblake says

    a ship catching fire in one of the ports where it hooks up to the grid would be nasty

    That wasn’t the scenario I was picturing. At least in that situation it’s static in a reasonably controlled environment and quite possibly entirely unmanned. I was picturing being one of the crew on board when the vessel is five or fifty miles out at sea and the batteries go on fire. “Nasty” wouldn’t cover it. I can’t see any other option for them than immediately abandoning ship. As I understand it those fires are effectively unfightable even onshore.

  10. says

    One of the best uses of a time machine would be to go back around a hundred years and convince someone that thorium is a good source of electricity. It’s almost certainly too late now, though I believe some research is being done.

    I doubt that ship is expected to get more than a few percent of its power from wind, but it’s enough to improve their fuel efficiency.

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