Special report: Technology to cut freight emissions

Sea, rail, road and air transportation of goods could all make carbon-cutting innovations in the next few years.

Environmental legislation has not yet done much to motivate green technology investment on the freight side. Aviation fuel and emissions are untaxed and uncapped, and no minimum fuel efficiency standards or tailpipe GHG emissions are applied to road freight transport.

Still, new technologies are breaking through, and sizeable GHG reductions will become available for all modes of freight transport in the next decade.

Road savings mapped out

Heavy-duty diesel technology is hard to match with less energy-intensive alternative fuels, though biodiesel produced under the EU’s sustainable biofuels standards may help cut net ‘well to wheels’ emissions.

So will fuel cells, powering in-cab heating for trucks’ sleeper cabs, instead of trucks’ engines idling overnight to keep drivers warm. A truck refrigeration system using waste CO2 from industrial installations, capable of running independently of the truck’s engine, is under development by Thermo King. Driver training has also shown promise of effecting significant fuel economies.

The role of telematics and real-time navigation aids is expanding fast, optimising road freight routes and helping avoid congestion. But overloaded and outdated road infrastructures remain a major impediment to freight flow.

Some third-party logistics suppliers have begun helping their customers reduce freight carbon impacts. The multi-modal operator DHL offers a green tariff service using alternative fuel vehicles, and has set itself specific annual targets to improve utilisation and thus reduce emissions per tonne/km.

For distribution vehicles operating on shorter, multi-drop trips, the potential of hybrid powertrains will soon be proved. Trials of diesel hybrid-electric medium-weight trucks are under way with the environmentally aware UPS in the United States.

Hybridisation may cut distribution trucks and vans’ emissions by around 20% to 30%, as it has with cars in urban driving cycles. In the UK, Smith Electric Vehicles launched its first battery-electric delivery vehicles in December 2006, supplying a trial fleet to TNT for trials in Rotterdam last August.

Steve Davis, national engineering manager at TNT Express UK, says inner city congestion zones are increasing their use of electric vehicles: “TNT foresees electric vehicles becoming a key component for future super-urbanised inner city pick-up and delivery networks as more and more restrictions are imposed on emissions in urbanised areas.”

Rail: back on track?

Two problems bedevil any major shift from road-only to multi-modal rail-road transport: the railhead infrastructure investment needed, and scarce capacity on the rail networks, which have seen so little post-World War Two investment.

While Volkswagen’s Spanish subsidiary SEAT recently opened a railhead to cut thousands of road car transporter journeys, VW’s UK sales company recently abandoned plans to use the railhead at its UK parts hub, finding that trucking spare parts from Germany and beyond is both quicker and £3m a year cheaper than rail. Average rail freight speeds across Europe are said to be slower than ocean shipping speeds thanks to infrastructure constraints.

Still, a Swedish start-up engineering firm is developing a ‘Flexiwaggon’ which can accommodate heavy trucks or combinations of distribution trucks, driving on and off wherever trackside space allows, without the need for dedicated infrastructure. The truck has yet to come on the market.

Mixed shipping forecast

With the expansion of sea traffic, the IMO now estimates that ships account for around 4.5% of global GHG emissions. About 50,000 merchant ships are now in use, carrying 90% of global traded goods across the oceans and emitting collectively around 800 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

New lower-carbon technologies for ships’ diesel engines have proved tricky. They need the lubricant effect of their sludgy heavy fuel oil, which lower-sulphur fuels can’t match. Since emissions when docking account for more than half the total emissions of ocean-going vessels, the advent of hybrid systems for use in low-speed and dockside power, and eventually, fuel cells, could make a significant difference. But the high capital cost and long working life of ships and their engines will delay large-scale innovations until ships’ replacement cycles.

The latest propulsive technology for ocean shipping can be retrofitted to existing ships, and it goes back to shipping’s original motive force: the wind. A 10,000-tonne cargo ship, the MS Beluga SkySails, sailed from Bremen to Caracas in January, helped along by the first 160 square meter computer-controlled kite installed on such a vessel. The system’s inventor, Stephan Wrage, hopes it will reduce the ship’s fuel cost by 20%, or US$1,600 per day’s sailing. Slowing down engines from a typical 25 knots to 20 or even 16 knots, and using the wind, could in combination cut ships’ fuel use and emissions by nearly half.

Change in the air

Engineers and manufacturers have had little motivation to improve aviation technology’s footprint since the first jet plane blasted off during World War Two. Like shipping, the transnational status of aviation has helped it escape emissions legislation or carbon cap-and-trade regimes (pending its forthcoming inclusion in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme), and likewise, tax on its kerosene fuel. Improvements are now on the way, though their impact will be seen on passenger planes long before they affect air freight.

Since the epic Hindenburg hydrogen Zeppelin disaster of 1937, airships have been devoted to little more than publicity and tourism purposes, but one British firm, Airship Initiatives, wants to change that. It is actively supporting the accelerated development of helium-filled freight airships with lifting capacities of up to 1,000 tonnes. The promise is to haul such heavy loads at comparatively gentle speeds, and sometimes to destinations inaccessible to either road vehicles or conventional aircraft, such as in humanitarian crises.

Until that takes off – a viable ‘Heavy Lift Airship’ could be flying by 2010/2011, says the company – freight aircraft will continue to be used for speed rather than bulk capacity. Airship Initiatives’ Ute Christopher takes comfort from a forecast that the air cargo market is set for average annual growth of 6.1% over the next 15 to 20 years, and the most significant growth is predicted for the over 80 tonnes category. “Because heavy-lift airships derive most of their lift from helium rather than the thrust of their engines,” she says, “they are one of the most environmentally benign forms of aviation. Hence the demand will be significant.” Potential uses include transporting heavy materials over the melting ice roads of Canada.

Legal imperative

The EU will give grant aid (€59m this year, up from €57 in 2007) to help companies during the high risk start-up phase of sustainable new services or significantly upgraded ones for shifting freight off the road and onto short-sea shipping, rail and inland waterways. However, legislation remains key to driving transport fuel efficiency forwards. >

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