Innovative transport technologies will change the world and preserve the ecology of the planet


The Pioneer of Belfast glides over the water quietly and smoothly, leaving no trace behind.

“Even with big waves and wind, we see the benefits of flying above the waves,” says Katrina Thompson, program director at Artemis Technologies.

The Pioneer, developed by Artemis Technologies, is the world’s first electric foiling workboat to be brought to market.

The foil, a wing-like structure under the boat, lifts the hull above the water, greatly reducing drag.

Combined with an electric motor, you get, according to Artemis, a vessel that reduces fuel consumption by 90% and emits no harmful substances.

“This is such a transformative technology,” says Dr. Thompson.

Dr Thompson grew up in Sailorstown, Belfast, amidst the hustle and bustle of heavy industry. She spent her childhood playing on docks while her parents worked on boats.

She left Belfast to become an aeronautical engineer, designing aircraft for Rolls-Royce and Bombardier. Then she returned to her roots, taking her experience with her.

image captionKatrina Thompson was an aeronautical engineer designing aircraft for Rolls-Royce and Bombardier

“My dad couldn’t understand it,” says Dr. Thompson. “Then I showed him the bottom of the boat. He said, “Well, it’s a wing.”

Artemis brings together motorsport experts, aeronautical engineers, flight control and physics modeling specialists, as well as naval architects.

The Pioneer measures 11.5m and is well suited for transporting crew to and from offshore wind farms, says Dr Thompson.

“They have to push against the wind to get to the farms and stay there while the crew disembarks. This is an energy-intensive maneuver.”

Waves caused by marine traffic cause coastal degradation, shore erosion and habitat loss. Artemis is allowed to operate close to the harbor at higher speeds than other vessels due to the lack of a wake line, which also promises significantly reduced travel times.

“We work in an industry that has traditionally been slow to adopt new technologies,” says Dr. Thompson. “If we start now, we can make a smoother path to decarbonisation.”

Container ships stand under cranes in the Port of Auckland
image captionThe shipping industry plans to cut CO2 emissions by 50%

About 90% of world trade is transported by sea. The international maritime sector is responsible for nearly 3% of total global emissions. If it were a country, it would be the sixth largest emitter in the world.

In 2018, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) set a goal of reducing emissions by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008. However, experts say that to limit global warming to 1.5C, the target should be 100%.

So, can the shipping industry clean up its act?

For short distances, the boats can be battery-powered, but for international transport, hydrogen-based sustainable fuels are seen as playing a central role in decarbonising the industry.

However, switching to hydrogen would require changes in the fuel infrastructure. Storage and cost are major concerns, as is adapting the ships themselves to run on water.

To solve this problem, some researchers are working on radical technologies.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge are experimenting with the use of floating fuel
image captionResearchers from the University of Cambridge are experimenting with the production of floating fuel

Experts at the University of Cambridge say that synthesis gas produced by artificial photosynthesis could bridge the gap between fossil fuels and pure hydrogen.

“Syntex gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, is an important industrial intermediate in the production of conventional fuels such as petrol,” says Dr Virgil Endrey, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge. “If we can produce synthetic gas environmentally, we won’t need fossil resources.”

Tourists chat as a punt floats down the River Cam under the Bridge of Sighs past St John’s College. Sunlight sparkles on the water, the surface is dotted with gold and red autumn leaves.

One letter looks out of place. Dr. Andrii covers him from the hungry duck.

“It won’t eat,” he assures me.

According to him, the plastic cover should be strong enough so that animals do not eat this unusual leaf.

“In fact, covering the water surface to a certain extent, about 50%, does not affect wildlife, and can even bring benefits, for example, preventing the evaporation of water from irrigation canals,” adds Dr. Andrey.

The leaves have two light absorbers that collect sunlight.
image captionThe leaves have two light absorbers that collect sunlight

Dr Andrei and his team from the University of Cambridge have developed an artificial leaf that generates clean fuel from sunlight and water, and could eventually work on a large scale in the sea.

Leaves have two types of light absorbers that collect sunlight. Light from the blue end of the spectrum is used to obtain oxygen from water. Another uses light from the red end of the spectrum to convert carbon dioxide and protons into synthetic gas or hydrogen.

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The ultra-thin, flexible devices are inexpensive, self-contained and floating, says Dr Andrei, meaning they can be used to create a sustainable alternative to petrol without taking up space on land.

“You could decentralize fuel production in remote areas — on the coast, on lakes, near islands. We could have fuel stations for ships.”

This is the first time a clean fuel has been created on water, and if scaled up, artificial leaves could be used in polluted waterways, in ports or at sea – and reduce the world’s shipping industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.

While this technology is still far from being implemented, others are reviving ways of transporting goods that have existed for centuries.

Sailcargo shipyard in Costa Rica
image captionSailcargo is building a new vessel at its shipyard in Costa Rica

Julia Milmore is the CEO of Sailcargo, which was founded in 2014 in the mangrove forests of Costa Rica.

Its flagship, Ceiba, is being built at its shipyard in the Central American country. It should set sail in 2024.

The 45-meter-long ship has three masts, making it a schooner in the sailing world.

It can carry 250 tons of cargo, roughly equivalent to nine standard shipping containers.

“Once built, it will be the largest clean cargo ship in the world,” says Ms Milmore.

“The crew knows that with every blow of the hammer or pull of the rope, they are contributing to a much bigger mission—bigger than the ship itself.”

Julia Milmore, CEO of Sailcargo
image captionJulia Millmore says smaller vessels can avoid congested ports

Another refurbished vessel, the Vega Gamley, purchased from a Swedish family that owned the vessel for decades, is ready to transport fair trade organic coffee between the Americas.

Traveling between Santa Marta in Colombia and New Jersey in the US, Vega will make up to eight trips a year. Each voyage will last 16 days and another six days in ports.

Vega under sail during delivery from Sweden to Harlingen, Netherlands
image captionVega Gamley is ready to transport fair trade coffee between the Americas

“We can’t compete with the speed of fossil fueled transport, but it only takes one look at the active vessel map to see weeks of waiting at ports around the world,” says Ms Millmore.

Her sailboats can only carry a tiny fraction of the cargo of a modern container ship – some of them carry more than 20,000 containers.

But Ms Milmore says her small boats can avoid the bottlenecks plaguing the shipping industry.

“Consumption has grown beyond infrastructure. Our ships can get around this thanks to our flexible loading and unloading operations. We are withdrawing from a market that has failed our environment.”

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