we shipped things across oceans for centuries, and global supply chains increasingly rely on diesel-powered megaships big enough to block entire canals on their own. How to decarbonize this monolithic industry? FleetZero thinks it’s possible with electric ships making short hops all around the Pacific, while relying on smaller ports and a smart battery-sharing system.

This problem is serious for anyone interested in emissions and the impact on the climate and the oceans, because these huge ships transport a large part of the world’s freight and emit on the order of a billion tons of carbon per year. . There are plenty of opportunities here, but like other legacy industries – and indeed the ships themselves – it can be difficult to overcome inertia.

Steven Henderson and Mike Carter grew up in and around the world of shipping, and as engineers they understand the immense forces and challenges at play for anyone looking to change the way the industry works. Electrifying a consumer vehicle is child’s play compared to converting a thousand-foot vessel with a building-sized engine. And even if you manage to do so, how are you going to recharge? Unroll a dozen extensions from the base of a crane every 100 kilometres?

It’s a conglomeration of serious issues on both the engineering and logistical side, and the industry has been paralyzed by the assumption that deviating from dirty traditional ways would be both complex and costly. With margins already eaten away by a variety of things (including, now, skyrocketing gas costs), can they really afford the expense of switching to more sustainable propulsion? A rise in costs, unwelcome even for successful shippers, could completely put smaller, less wealthy regions and businesses out of the game.

Fortunately, FleetZero believes its solution will not only be cleaner, but also cheaper to operate. The reasons for this start with the surprising (to lubbers) fact that transoceanic shipping doesn’t necessarily just go “straight” across the ocean; from East Asia to West Coast ports, it’s almost as direct (and potentially less risky) to follow the coast most of the way. It seems a lot longer, but due to the curvature of the Earth, it actually isn’t – and you have the advantage of being close to dry land for restocking or making deliveries while you’re at it. road.

If you don’t have to travel several thousand miles non-stop, battery-powered expedition starts to make a lot more sense, and in fact it’s just one of many puzzle pieces that fit together to form a potentially transformative image.

Standard Shipping Units

“The weird economics of all of this is that the more ships you have and the more port calls you have, the lower your cost. The key is to make the batteries interchangeable – that wouldn’t work for a plug-in ship,” Henderson said.

It’s a bit counterintuitive – “I actually had to model this on the floor with my daughter’s toy boats,” he added – but think of it this way. If a ship has enough batteries to travel a thousand miles, then unless you sail exactly that distance every time, you have either too much or too little capacity. And if you only have one large ship that needs to swap batteries at each end, you need to keep double the number of active batteries around – one set to swap at each destination. But if you spread the same capacity among several smaller ships and add more possible stops, suddenly it takes a lot less battery capacity to move the same amount of cargo.

This useful diagram of a simple case can help clarify:

Picture credits: FleetZero

There are many more configurations in between, but the idea is pretty clear: more and smaller ships use fewer batteries to move the same amount of cargo, assuming you have intermediate ports to make the network flexible exchange. Rechargeable ships won’t work partly because they carry a lot of batteries (resulting in underutilization), but also because shore charging may not be available.

Since batteries are the most expensive part of electrifying a ship, efficiency significantly reduces the cost of purchasing the fleet. But of course, this approach also requires charging infrastructure in ports that may not have it. FleetZero’s approach, which seems obvious in retrospect, is to make the ship’s batteries as portable as its cargo – by placing them in shipping containers.

CG rendering of a Fleetzero shipping container battery.

CG rendering of a Fleetzero Leviathan shipping container battery.

If you think it will take up a lot of space, there are two answers to this. First, by removing the massive diesel engines and fuel and ballast tanks, you open up a ton of space on a given ship, sometimes doubling the cargo capacity. And second, you just have to take as much as you need.

“We can put two batteries on a ship or two hundred, changing the range every time we load it,” Henderson said. “You unload and load them like any other cargo; it is transported to where it needs to go, a warehouse or a local utility. »

There they can take advantage of off-peak electricity to recharge these Leviathan batteries (as they call them) cheaply, or even be used as temporary power for ships to plug into so they don’t have to run on their own diesel generators.

“Dock electrification is expensive – all these ports are 50, 100 years old,” Henderson continued. “We’ve been told it’s cheaper to use our batteries to power other ships, that way you don’t have to build a substation at every dock.”

This feeds into the next puzzle piece, adapting this hypothetical network of ships to a real network of ports.

Ports of call

Carter explained that when they were spitting the idea, it was clear that a direct hit across the ocean on a 10,000 container megaship would require a battery stack a few miles high – something of a challenge. engineering – and while ships that hold only a handful of containers could do it, logistics or a swarm of smaller ships didn’t. “There’s a sweet spot for the size of vessel you want to use, and that’s a three to four thousand container vessel,” he said. (Images in this article are of a proposed small test vessel.)

“Because they’re smaller — we’re always talking about 700 feet — you can access smaller ports,” Carter said. “There are all these ports, but no ship entering them. Being able to use smaller ships gives [logistics companies] so much more flexibility in the supply chain than they have today. If we look at places like Portland or Everett, those are ports that few people know about, but there’s not as much congestion and we can bring freight closer to customers.

CG renderings of boats carrying batteries of shipping containers.

Picture credits: FleetZero

It also allows for the idea of ​​having frequent pit stops for ships where they can drop off depleted batteries and pick up just enough new ones to get them to their destination, such as building a network of charging stations along highways. Local governments and port managers at these smaller sites are, perhaps needless to say, enthusiastic about attracting new regular business.

Thus: the use of container-sized portable batteries facilitates medium-distance travel in medium-sized vessels, which activates smaller ports, which can be used as charging stations without too much investment, reinforcing network and reducing the cost of fleet operations – making battery-powered navigation competitive and perhaps even cheaper than traditional gas-powered vessels.

It sounds promising, but it also seems like a lot. Like any sensible startup, they start small, prove the concept, and then are ready to scale within three years. Fresh off their Y Combinator Demo Day debut in the latest winter cohort, FleetZero has already raised $3.5 million in a combination of angel and pre-seed rounds. Investors include Sam Altman, John Doerr, David Rubenstein, David Adelman, Flexport, Y Combinator, My Climate Journey and Joris Poort.

The first task was to build the batteries, which they noted had very different chemistry to most others, largely due to the extreme danger posed by fires on these ships. “We needed a battery that didn’t oxidize on its own,” Henderson said, referring to the process that can cause things like lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries to present serious risks. They ended up switching to lithium iron phosphate and integrating passive and active fire suppression measures.

With that settled, their next task is to load a group into the back of a 300ft vessel and test the entire shipping and trading process from start to finish. When that’s done and they get the required regulatory approvals, they’ll start converting ships in 2025 – all after raising more money, presumably.

With luck and hard work, FleetZero could begin commercial operations the same year. While there’s a lot to bite into, they have the advantage of having just about everyone on their side – electrifying shipping on this scale would benefit fleet owners, port operators, logistics companies and, last but not least, to the planet.