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Maritime cargo vessels - Is bigger better?

The world's first container ship vs. the world's largest container ship

A capacity increase of almost 20,000% in just 59 years

The MSC Oscar

The MSC Oscar has a capacity of 19,224 TEU

A180-L onboard the MSC Oscar

ABB Turbocharging the world's most efficient turbocharger onboard the world's largest container ship

Cargo ships have been used to transport commodities for over three thousand years. Today ninety percent of goods traded around the world travel by sea, and the recent history of maritime logistics has seen spectacular increases in the size and capacity of vessels, with even bigger ships waiting to be built.

The CSCL Globe was launched in November 2014. It is 400 m long and has space for 19,100 industry standard containers (TEU). It barely held the world record into the New Year. Shortly after, the MSC Oscar was launched in January 2015 and though actually slightly shorter it has greater capacity: 19,224 TEU.

Like the CSCL Globe, the MSC Oscar will not hold onto its world record for long. A sister ship, the MSC Oliver, launches in April 2015 with identical capacity. The Mediterranean Shipping Company is commissioning eighteen more to follow. Vessels of up to 24,000 TEUs are elsewhere on the drawing board. 

It is all a far cry since the SS Ideal X launched the modern industry in 1956 with just 96 TEU (58 containers) on board. Containerization made globalization possible, and yet cargo shipping is a fiercely competitive business. It has to respond to fluctuations of operational capacity in different markets, a global shortage of properly trained mariners, and above all rises in the price of fuel. 
So the increases in ship size are actually borne of the need to create ever greater economies of scale. Every aspect of these massive vessels is designed to make transport of cargo as fuel efficient and cost effective as possible.

The MSC Oscar is certainly vast. Its deck is the size of four football fields. It is capable of accommodating 39,000 cars or 117 million pairs of sneakers! But to reduce weight and cost, the steel hull is astonishingly thin in places. An intricate lattice of joints between its inner and outer walls provide the structural rigidity required to support such loads safely. Water ballast is used as appropriate to balance cargo weight distribution to prevent the ship from tilting when not fully loaded.

The MSC Oscar is fitted with a number of efficiency enhancing systems. At the heart of this Leviathan is a massive engine, it is 21m long and 15m high.  A modern, low fuel consumption MAN diesel engine with power output of 62,500 kW (or 80,000 hp), the engine has been optimized so that fuel consumption can be automatically controlled to take into consideration both speed and weather conditions and it has a broad optimal speed range for optimum operational flexibility.
The efficiency of the engine is further enhanced with high efficiency ABB turbochargers.  ABB’s A180-L one of the world's most efficient turbochargers. 

A key objective of turbocharger technology is fuel economy and the ABB Turbocharging A100-L type of turbochargers installed both on the CSCL Globe and the MSC Oscar fully meet this objective and the specific requirements of ships of this size. 

Fuel will remain a major cost in shipping therefore ABB Turbocharging will keep focusing on achieving the highest efficiencies” says ABB Turbocharging’s Senior General Manager, Arie Smits.

The turbocharged engine drives the ship’s huge single propeller without gears and quite slowly: in fact at just 80 revolutions a minute. Larger and slower blades are more efficient than smaller, faster ones.
As a result, Oscar’s optimum speed is actually 22.8 knots. In 24 hours it can travel 1,000 km, consuming 280,000 liters of fuel. This works out at less than 1.5 liters per container per 100 km. This is far more economical and environmentally friendly than the road transport equivalent. The average car – carrying rather less than a single container load - consumes 9 liters per 100 km.

In fact the Mediterranean Shipping Company says the MSC Oscar is the most energy efficient vessel on the planet: consuming 35% less fuel and therefore emitting the same percentage less carbon dioxide.
The cost of transporting one TEU for a day by sea is $12.43 for a ship of 12,500 TEU capacity and $10.99 for an 18,000 TEU capacity ship. And when Prelude FLNG launches in 2017 with a capacity of 24,000 TEU, this price will drop to just $9.57. That’s a decrease of over 23% in transportation costs for each and every TEU on board compared with a 12,500 TEU Vessel.  Evidently, the mega vessels have become essential for operators to remain cost-competitive.

Challenges nonetheless remain. After 2016 all vessels will have to comply with lower emission limits according to IMO Tier III. They are almost four times as strict as before in emission controlled areas (ECAs).  In addition, many port docks around the world and their handling infrastructure cannot accommodate vessels of such vast size. The MSC Oscar will not be able to squeeze through the Panama Canal even after its current expansion project is completed in 2016. 
The marine industry is also faced with fluctuating fuel prices. According to Arie Smits of ABB Turbocharging, “the uncertainty of fuel development has increased interest in dual rating for marine engines and ABB has well positioned its products to meet this trend.”

With dual rating, a vessel is equipped with multiple turbochargers which fulfil the design requirements for full rating and de-rating, allowing the operational flexibility of vessels at both high load and low load.

But the race for ever more fuel efficient cost-effective and environmentally friendly marine logistics will surely continue, driven as always by the growing demands of global trade, environmental considerations and the ability to construct ever more innovative vessel designs to meet them.


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