Air lubrication a possibility for Great Lakes ships

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An idea is bubbling in the Great Lakes shipping industry, one that could increase fuel efficiency by 5 percent to 20 percent.

“This has been a dream of naval architecture for a long time,” said Steven Ceccio, chair of naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of Michigan.

Naval engineers believe injecting air under the bottom of a ship reduces friction, helping them travel faster on less fuel.

Air lubrication systems are best suited to large ships with flat bottoms. Photo: cseeman (flickr)

“If you think about places in the U.S. where the benefit of fuel savings and reduced emissions would be helpful, it’s the Great Lakes,” Ceccio said.

Great Lakes ships tend to have large, flat bottoms — an ideal shape for the technology because air stays underneath the ship instead of bubbling to the surface.

Ceccio and Simo Makiharju, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, studied the feasibility of air lubrication. The technique requires a blower to inject air under the ship. That costs money to run, so they also compared that cost to the  savings from reducing the friction.

“From an engineering and energy savings standpoint there’s a benefit, but what we’d need to do with a ship owner and operator is determine the payback time in the cost of retrofitting [each ship],” Ceccio said.

Costs of adding a blower depend on the ship. Ceccio said retrofitting old ships with the technology would often be more costly than building it on new ships.

So far no ships in the Great Lakes use air lubrication technology.

“Over the past several years there’s been a great deal of progress,” Ceccio said. “Now in Europe and Japan they’re deploying large ships that use air lubrication to reduce energy use.”

Ceccio expects the payoffs of air lubrication are worthwhile because large companies like Mitsubishi are using the technology.

Makiharju presented his research at a Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute meeting in Minnesota in September. The institute helped fund their work.

“We’re looking for both economic and environmental sustainability for shipping on the Great Lakes, so this ties in with our mission,” said Carol Wolosz, executive director of the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute.

Although Wolosz and other maritime researchers are interested in air lubrication, no ship owners have approached Ceccio and Makiharju. They hope proving lubrication is a good financial choice will generate more interest.

“If it were proven that it’s viable and proven to work, it could merit design into future vessels,” Wolosz said.

2 thoughts on “Air lubrication a possibility for Great Lakes ships

  1. With superior fuel efficiency and fewer greenhouse gas emissions per metric ton-kilometre than trucking or rail, marine leads the way in environmentally smart transportation. Ships have fewer spills, fewer accidents and create less nuisance noise than trucks or trains. The movement of millions of metric tons of cargo on the Great Lakes-Seaway System also plays a role in reducing road congestion and related negative impacts. The Great Lakes-Seaway marine industry is working to further reduce its environmental footprint by investing in new ships and technology.

    Ships help preserve North America’s energy resources. Great Lakes ships can carry vast amounts of cargo long distances on significantly less fuel than both trains and trucks. These vessels are, on average, 4 times more fuel-efficient than trucks and 1.75 times more fuel-efficient than trains.
    Ships have the smallest carbon footprint. Transportation greenhouse gases are directly related to fuel efficiency. Burning less fuel per metric ton-kilometre equates to fewer emissions being vented into the air. A Great Lakes carrier produces 70 percent less carbon dioxide per metric ton/kilometre compared to trucks.
    Ships remove traffic from congested motorways. The largest Great Lakes vessels can carry 70,000 metric tons of cargo – the equivalent to 3,000 trucks or 700 rail cars. Smaller Seaway-sized ships carry roughly 25,000 metric tons of cargo. It would take 870 trucks or 225 rail cars to carry the same load.
    Fuel Efficiency & Carbon Emissions


  2. Nice article Carol.
    I am not sure the world has any idea of massive impact maritime has on our worlds economies and environment. CARB, EPA and the Navy have done some amazing things to help increase awareness and efficiencies over the last two decades… However, industries lack of acceptance of these cost saving measures and as a result will lead to more regulations (sad truth of the birth of regs).

    A few facts on why we need more focus and discussion on maritime:
    – Just 16 Ships Expel as Much Pollution as All the Cars in the World.
    – “Oceangoing vessels are among the dirtiest and fastest-growing sources of air pollution in the world,” “the sheer number of these ships, coupled with operating practices that use fuel inefficiently and poor government oversight, results in carbon dioxide emissions” equal 3% of ALL the worlds greenhouse gasses with emissions projected to double in North America in the next decade (twice as much as the world’s airliners).
    – EPA’s recent emission reductions strategy will prevent between 12,000 and 31,000 premature deaths and 1.4 million work days lost. The estimated annual health benefits in 2030 as a result of reduced air pollution are valued between $110 and $270 billion.
    -As IMO has failed to implement rules on conventional pollution, most of the world’s 90,000 ocean freighters remain inefficient, costly, smog hogs

    As far as the bubble studies go… Most savings reflect old cost data and would have a better bottom line savings when put in current dollars.

    I think there is vast rooms for engineering improvements in bubbling hulls as well as efficiency gains… increasing efficiencies 5-20% with air injection could save billions of cash a 100,000’s of lives.

    We need less focus on regulations and more focus on how to save (as you did).

    Thanks for posting this study and topic.
    I circulated it through my EHS News and energy networks and hope it will generate some great response and involvement.

    *sourced here –

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