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Business and Economics Department
News and Events Details
By Steve Kuchera
Duluth News Tribune
A Twin Ports research institute will study environmental issues facing shipping and Great Lakes marine transportation under a five-year agreement with the federal government.
The Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute's first task is to lead a study of whether it's feasible to convert to natural gas 10 bulk carriers that generate steam by burning fuel oil.
"These ships are going to have a problem in their current state with what is coming down the road" for air emission standards, said Michael Parsons, professor emeritus from the University of Michigan's Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering Department, who will lead the study. "Converting to natural gas would make them some of the cleanest ships on the lakes."
Most of the ships were built during the 1950s.
"So they still have life in fresh water," Parsons said.
Converting the carriers to natural gas also could reduce fuel and crew costs. The study will help determine whether the savings would offset the conversion costs.
"The advantages have to be weighed against the added costs," Parsons said. "There are going to be significant costs to do the conversion. Part of the study is to look at the tradeoffs and the return period on the investment to see if it makes sense."
The U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration - also known as MARAD - is paying for the study by the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute, a consortium of the University of Wisconsin-Superior and the University of Minnesota Duluth with 10 affiliate universities around the Great Lakes.
"Ideally, the results we find could extend to other areas, other waterways," said Carol Wolosz, the institute's executive director.
The institute has conducted research for MARAD before, "but this is the first time we have been set up on a cooperative agreement," Wolosz said.
Though the study is in its early stages, Wolosz said Parsons should have a "good bit of information" to present at back-to-back conferences in Cleveland in late February.
Converting the steamships would require removing their fuel bunkers, boilers and turbines and installing new engines and large insulated tanks to hold liquefied natural gas at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. While LNG is cheaper than the bunker fuel the lakers burn, LNG requires 3.5 to four times as much volume as fuel oil containing a similar amount of energy.
"Part of the challenge of the study is to see if you have enough room in a ship to put in enough LNG so that the ships would have the range they need to operate on the Great Lakes," Parsons said. "The ore carriers have routes that are six or seven days long."
While Parsons is looking at the economics of converting the vessels, other researchers will work with gas suppliers and pipeline companies to determine what changes would be necessary to meet the needs of LNG-powered ships.
Using natural gas to help power ships is not new.
LNG bulk carriers began using some of their cargo as fuel in the 1960s. Ferries in Canada, Virginia and Norway use natural gas. The Norwegian company Fjord1 operates 12 gas-powered ferries along the country's coast. On Dec. 13, the company held a naming ceremony for the world's largest gas ferry, the 426-foot-long MF Boknafjord, with a capacity of 242 passenger cars and 600 passengers. Its three LNG motors give the ferry a cruising speed of 20 knots.
Ferries -- with short routes and frequent opportunity to take on fuel -- are natural candidates to use natural gas.
The institute will study the feasibility of converting the last coal-burning ferry on the Great Lakes to natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency has given the SS Badger until December to stop dumping coal ash into Lake Michigan.
The 410-foot Badger makes daily trips between Ludington, Mich., and Manitowoc, Wis., from mid-May to mid-October, dumping more than 500 tons of ash in the process. The institute will examine the Badger's fuel consumption, routes, engineering and the availability or need for fueling facilities to determine the viability of using natural gas.
"It is the best thing to study right now because of all the circumstances," Wolosz said. "They are under pressure to do something; they need a decision, but they can't convert to natural gas if there isn't going to be gas available. But what would it take to make gas available, and how would this tie to other ships on the Great Lakes?"
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