How Naval Engineers Envision More Eco-Friendly Ships

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The ships of tomorrow don’t only need to be fuel-efficient, they also have to respect marine life and cause the least amount of interruption to the living beings that live underwater. Naval engineers are currently looking into ways to achieve this, and the answer seems to lie in the use of better materials.

By “better” we mean more sustainable, less toxic, less noisy, and easier to recycle. The defacto material to replace is steel and considering all the benefits that come with it, it’s not easy to dethrone such an established player. However, there are actually better choices that don’t degrade as quickly, are strong enough, and have better hydrodynamic coefficients, so they would generate less noise and ripple whilst drifting around the world’s oceans.

Most engineers experiment with composites like FRP (fibre-reinforced plastic). Already, teams have designed a 50-meters long container ship, a fishing vessel, and a passenger carrier, and in computer simulations, they all seem to work as expected. Because the container ship is about 36% lighter than what it would weigh if it was made of steel, it can carry up to 17% more cargo aboard.

The challenge is to make these FRP panels meet all regulatory standards, like noise insulation, vibration resistance, strength, etc. There are many aspects to consider, and one has to experiment with various fibre and resin compositions to reach the desired mechanical and physical properties for each of the ship’s components.

Another approach of a team of engineers working on the EU-funded “RAMSSES” project is to 3D print metallic propellers that are hollow, more lightweight, and have a less notable environmental impact as a result. Because these propellers are more elastic too, they emit less vibration so they’re more silent.

The researchers working on these projects believe that we’re just 15 years away from seeing such vessels navigating the oceans for real, and they maintain that it’s only a matter of improving the technology to make them safe enough to meet all regulatory requirements.

Bianca Van der Watt

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