The port of the future

Decarbonising transport, i.e. drastically reduce its carbon emissions, is one of the focal points on the European Commission’s agenda. It is a target that requires the combined use of various alternative fuels in the intermodal transport: as far as maritime and heavy duty road transport are concerned, LNG (liquefied natural gas) is today the best intermediate solution to be adopted while developing a zero carbon future.

If, as many expect, LNG becomes a significant portion (20–30%) of the fuel used by ships, every port should be equipped with different refuelling systems in order to simultaneously serve various users with often quite different characteristics. LNG storage capacity in each port by means of a small-scale LNG terminal is not sufficient and even not necessary to achieve this goal: what is needed is an efficient short- and medium-range distribution system to all the users in a geographical area of a regional, sometimes of a multi-regional, scale.

How will the port of the future look like? The picture, made by Fondazione CS MARE, shows a likely scenario: in this case the port is equipped also with a small-scale LNG terminal from which LNG is then distributed also to other ports having their own local LNG distribution network and no fixed storage.

In detail, a small-scale LNG terminal has a storage capacity of 3,000 to 15,000 cubic metres. It is supplied by LNG feeder vessels, which in turn are filled in large terminals. From the small-scale terminal, LNG is locally distributed by small ships known as bunkering vessels, with capacities from 500 to 2,000 cubic metres, and non-propelled bunkering barges, which can also provide small mobile local storage in neighbouring ports.

In their turn, bunkering vessels and barges supply either users, such as cargo ships, ferries and cruise ships or other components of the network as the mini-LNG terminals and small floating power plants: these latter use LNG to produce and supply ships with electrical power and also serve as fuel tanks for ships with LNG engines but no on board storage.

Another essential element of the systems is the ISO LNG container: with a capacity of about 50 cubic metres, it is ideal to transport by road, rail and sea small amount of LNG. It can be filled directly from the terminal in the area adjacent to the plant, to then be distributed by truck to small users nearby (150–200 km), typically road LNG refuelling stations.

Properly equipped with connection systems and transfer pumps, a truck with an ISO container also bunkers ships transferring LNG to their tanks. This bunkering method, known as TTS (truck-to-ship), can be enhanced by using mobile manifolds, which use several ISO containers at the same time to quickly transfer LNG to ships with medium tanks (200–300 cubic metres). Larger quantities can be bunkered with the PTS (port-to-ship) method where the ship is directly connected via pipeline to mini-LNG terminals distributed in the port area.

In the port ecosystem, one of the challenges to be faced in the near future is atmospheric pollution from the berthed ships. Some are connected to the power supply system (if there is one), while others keep their engines running to continue generating electrical energy. LNG could also help in the following situation: some ships, able to produce electrical power from gas, do not have on-board LNG storage and use an ISO LNG container as an external storage. The growing demand for electrical power can therefore be met with environmentally-friendly production using both LNG fuelled mobile power plants and ships’ own energy production systems.

Lastly, the shore centre manages the flow and exchange of digital data streams between ships, the port and elements of the LNG infrastructure, especially mobile ones, making the whole supply chain more efficient. From this, it is possible to regulate, for example, quay lighting to address light pollution and/or manage energy efficiency of the port, as well as allowing LNG users on the port or nearby to exchange the information needed to make the whole supply chain more efficient. The port of the future is a “smart port” in every sense, in which fuel distribution is not centralised, and bunkering the various users takes place through multiple systems, all without compromising the maritime environment.

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