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Newcastle Univ. researchers say expansion of Panama Canal could help reduce carbon footprint of marine industry

In a paper published this month in the International Journal of Maritime Engineering, Paul Stott and Dr Peter Wright of Newcastle University, UK, suggest that the $6-billion Panama Canal expansion program offers the marine industry as a whole an opportunity to reduce its environmental impact.

Expanded sections of the Panama Canal are due to open in 2014 following an eight-year program to widen and deepen the waterway in order to increase capacity for liner shipping. This will remove the breadth restriction of 32.2m (known as ‘Panamax’ in the shipping industry) that has constrained ships using the canal since it opened in 1914.

The main reason for the expansion is to increase the capacity of the canal by facilitating the passage of larger container ships, to the benefit of the Panamanian economy for which canal revenues make a significant contribution.

This is a great example of unintended consequences. Potentially, what we have here is an ideal opportunity to implement some quite simple changes that will make a significant difference to the environmental credentials of the industry.

—Paul Stott

In the study the Newcastle team have quantified significant potential gains in efficiency in the dry bulk trades—i.e., the shipping of grain, ore, coal and so on—which result directly from the expansion of the canal.

Stott says the relaxation of the constraint will have two main effects: permitting more efficient hull design; and permitting larger bulk carriers to trade through the canal with the associated economy of scale.

The research presents analysis of bulk shipping developments that strongly support the contention that there is a demand for vessels in the dry bulk Panamax sector that are larger than the current 85,000 tonne limit imposed by the beam constraint.

The potential savings in fuel costs are substantial, as is the consequent reduction in emissions, potentially saving up to 16% per tonne-mile. This is important given that the International Maritime Organisation estimates that shipping was responsible for about 2.7% of global emissions of CO2 in 2007 but warns that this may rise to between 12% and 18% by 2050 if the shipping industry does not take major steps to reduce emissions.

Currently, much research into carbon reduction is focused on fairly radical ideas but good, solid engineering, hull design and optimisation in particular, still has a major role to play in achieving the goal of reducing emissions.

—Paul Stott

The Panamax constraint is routinely applied far wider than in just the liner and bulk carrier trades. Around 45% of all vessels over 20,000 gross tons delivered over the past decade have had Panamax beam and there are currently more than 1,500 such vessels on order for future delivery despite the impending demise of the beam constraint.

Alternative fuels and new technologies will be vital for driving the marine industry forward to a more sustainable future but this is a change we can make now through the application of existing technologies that are well proven. Increasing beam is not a possibility for retro-fit and the benefits in the immediate future may therefore be limited by the young age of the merchant fleet.

We have probably established the Panamax fleet for the next twenty years in the shipbuilding boom of the last five years. Having said this, there remains a significant orderbook of new ships that could potentially benefit from re-design with increased beam and possibly increased capacity with consequent gains in efficiency for the owners and benefits for the planet.

—Paul Stott



This is a common sense project that we should all support.

Stan Peterson

Shipping companies around the world, and their Ocean Going Vessels, OGVs, have agreed to minimize toxic emissions under the MARPOL Annex IV Treaty amendments. Tier IV MARPOL levels significantly clean up OGV emissions.

Unlike other regulation this is enforced by the Maritime Insurance business, denying insurance to non compliers, and it has been successful.

Plus the amendments also decrease the toxic constituents of the low grade fuels used in Ocean Going Vessel big diesels.

Incidental, the largest US navy vessels, like our supercarriers, will be able to transit the enlarged Panama Canal. Perhaps this will reduce the need for as many US supercarriers, and their attendant vessels.

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