The world’s first autonomous electric cargo ship of 7 MWh to travel without a crew on board

A Norwegian company called Yara International claims to have created the world’s first zero-emission vessel that can also carry cargo autonomously. The electric cargo ship Yara Birkeland was first conceptualized in 2017, but is now looking to make its first unmanned voyage on board later this year in Norway.

Yara International is a Norwegian company founded in 1905 to combat the growing famine in Europe at the time. The company created the world’s first nitrogen fertilizer, which remains its main business focus today.

In addition to her perpetual fight against hunger, Yara focuses on reducing emissions and sustainable farming practices. While the company wants to continue to be successful in feeding the planet, it believes it can do so in a sustainable way as well.

To combat toxic sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from ship diesel engines, the Norwegian company has created Yara Marine Technologies. In 2017, the company began to conceptualize the possibility of a fully electric self-contained vessel to completely eliminate toxic emissions.

Today, the Yara Birkeland is afloat in Norway, named after the Norwegian researcher who discovered the possibility of adding nitrogen to fertilizers. Now the electric freighter is looking to complete its first voyage without a single crew member on board.

The electric cargo ship Yara Birkeland / Source: Yara International

Yara’s electric freighter will make its first autonomous trip this year

According to a report by CNN, the electric cargo ship Yara Birkeland will make its first autonomous trip between two Norwegian cities (Herøya to Brevik) later this year. Although there is no crew aboard the freighter, it will still be closely monitored from three control centers ashore.

For starters, loading and unloading the ship will require humans. However, according to Jon Sletten, manager of Yara’s plant in Porsgrunn, Norway, most operations will eventually run on stand-alone technology. This will eventually include self-contained cranes and straddle carriers that help move containers on and off the ship.

The focus on autonomy lowers the cost of operation for those carrying freight, while the fully electric cargo ship simultaneously fights carbon emissions.

A rendering of the Yara Birkeland as a freight solution

The electric cargo ship has a battery capacity of 7 MWh, powering two 900 kW Azipull nacelles, as well as two 700 kW tunnel thrusters, delivering a top speed of 13 knots (~ 15 mph). The current cargo capacity of the Yara Birkeland is 120 Twenty Foot Equivalent (TEU) or sixty 40 ′ sea containers.

The zero-emission ship was originally scheduled to start autonomous voyages last year, but plans have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the Yara Birkeland finally begins autonomous freight shipments to Norway, it will be billed at the dock before visiting ports along the European coast and returning. Sletten expects the electric freighter will replace 40,000 truck trips per year.

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