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What Tesla is for cars, Becker aims to be for ships

What Tesla is for cars, Becker aims to be for ships
Following the successful launch of LNG hybrid generating barge “Hummel” (“Bumblebee”) late last year, Becker Marine will design and build many more proof-of-concept, LNG-powered hybrid vessels, including ferries and container ships, md Dirk Lehmann has revealed in an interview at the company's Hamburg headquarters.

Becker's full ownership and operation of the Bureau Veritas-classed Hummel under the German flag means the company now qualifies as a shipowner. The barge is capable of providing 7.5 mw of LNG-fired power from its five caterpillar generators.

“We are a shipowner now, and we will extend this role,” says Lehmann. “We will build more LNG-powered ships of different types - we have ferries developed as LNG hybrid ships, a mixture of LNG and battery: plug in hybrids, overnight charge.”

“But not a shipowner in the sense of Maersk or CMA CGM – far from it,” laughs sales and projects director Walther Bauer. Instead, Becker is designing the ferries in-house, before sending them to subsidiary computer modelling and CFD firm IBMV, and then, once built, will deploy them on a specially-created commercial routes as proof-of-concept.

“We also have container ships on the drawing board for the Baltic trades,” adds Lehmann.

Discussing the rationale behind the decision, Lehmann cites Tesla, a US car manufacturer that has built and sold a series of commercially successful all-electric vehicles. “Tesla put this technology together and said ‘hey, we can show that it works’. We learnt a lot from the automotive guys.

“We still had the impression that batteries are heavy, they don’t last forever, and they cost a fortune – this is over. Batteries are cheap, they’re light, and you can store a lot of power. They are available, we just have to use them.”

“So what Tesla is for the car industry, Becker will be for ships,” Bauer adds.

It is perhaps worth noting the battery in a Tesla Model S weighs in at a hefty 1,323 lbs and reportedly has a replacement cost of $12,000.

The group is setting major stock by LNG as a marine fuel of the future, according to Lehmann. “We need a clean fuel – we cannot make dirty combustion clean by after-treatment, like scrubbers – like in cars, you need a clean fuel in and you will have clean exhaust. It’s not logical – to try and make dirty things clean. You’re better to stay clean from the beginning.”

Demand for new barges is high, claims the Becker boss, and the group will manufacture “many more”, as what it claims is a more feasible alternative to shore power in Europe. “The big problem is that although we Germans went out of nuclear and tried to go into wind, we are producing the dirtiest power in Europe. These emissions are nearly the same as a ship running on low-sulphur fuel. There is no advantage. Why should a ship switch off its own engines with the relatively cheap production of electricity, if it has to plug into a land grid with hardly any environmental advantage? On the other hand, our barge is producing clean power.”

The next step for Becker will be more exotic manufacturing materials, such as carbon fibre, which can be lighter than steel, can offer more flexibility in design, and can be - however counter-intuitively - “cheaper, even,” Lehmann assures. “So ships don’t need to be as heavy as they are today, if one were to really think it through. It is definitely cost-effective to build a whole ship out of carbon-fibre.” Becker plans to use glass fibre in the construction of its two ferries.

“We will invest in new ship types which could not be built without us. So this LNG barge needed an entrepreneur with good connections in the market to say ‘let’s give it a try’ and that’s what we did.

“We want to show it can be done,” concludes Lehmann.