Steam Power 200 years ago, Diesel Power 100 years ago… Gas Power tomorrow

Craig Eason writes in Lloyds List – Thursday 23 February 2012

It takes 100 years to create a revolution in shipping.

One hundred years ago the first oil-powered ship, SELANDIA, was handed over to its Danish owners, marking the demise of steam power and the start of the era of diesel and heavy fuel oil.

It was also 100 years before SELANDIA that COMET, the first commercial steamship, left a Scottish shipyard in 1812, introducing a new form of propulsion to beat sail and herald the end of the huge clippers.

Today the same sort of comments are being made about gas-powered shipping, after the first gas-powered ferries in Norway heralded the start of a regional drive to make the use of liquefied natural gas more widespread.

While the change from steam power to diesel was a triumph in efficiency and cost, and the development of LNG fuel is being touted in the same light, it is important to look at how far shipping has come since SELANDIA was launched in 1912 by Burmeister and Wain, a shipbuilder with a yard in Copenhagen. The shipbuilder was also the engine maker.

Vessels have grown in size while improving fuel efficiency and operating costs. Fuel costs in recent years have been rocketing, but according to some this is a very recent phenomenon as fuel in 1912 was virtually impossible to come by and likely to be expensive.

SELANDIA was powered by two small engines. They were gas oil engines, the fuel stored in relatively large fuel tanks in the vessel’s double bottom. The vessel was designed to sail from Denmark to Bangkok and back again without needing to bunker. Facilities were available in Singapore, but were not relied upon.

Critics of gas-powered shipping point to a similar problem with LNG availability. Diesel was available only in selected ports, making it a suitable fuel for vessels on liner trades. It was 20 years before tramp shipping turned from steam to diesel.

MAN Diesel manager Otto Winkel says SELANDIA was unique also in that its two engines were fuelled by a refined oil, and not a residual product as is the case with the majority of two-stroke engines. The fuel for SELANDIA’s first voyage actually came from eastern Europe.

The small vessel would probably have been known as a Bangkokmax as its dimensions were such that it could sail up the Chao Phraya river.

It also was designed to have no visible funnel, a way of acknowledging the change of environmental performance without really having any strong thought for environmental stewardship.

MAN Diesel and Turbo, which B&W became after it was bought by the German MAN engineering group in the 1980s, has been celebrating 100 years of diesel shipping this month, but also commenting on the future of its engines. It has pointed to the modern engine and the development of dual fuel engines.

However, just as tramp vessels took to oil power 20 years after its first use on SELANDIA, the widespread use of LNG will also take some time as the bunkering capabilities have to be more widespread before operators on the spot market feel comfortable about using such ships.

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