Clean Commerce: Our Oceans Need More Sustainability Innovators

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on August 01, 2017
Traver Kennedy
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A few days ago, the Energy Observer, a ship powered by hydrogen fuel cells supported by solar and wind, set sail around the world’s oceans on a six-year mission to “highlight the capabilities of clean technology and how it can be used for transportation,” as reported by Hellenic Shipping News. The ship will make 101 stops in over 50 countries to look for innovative solutions for the environment and promote collaboration around the world. The team behind this innovative ship embarked on their trip with a vision, “to explore, to discover, and share solutions for a cleaner future.”


More than 50,000 merchant ships emit C02 and fine particles into our oceans today. This story can be different tomorrow.

Our oceans are so vast and look so remote when you are sailing them, that one seldom stops to think about how the global commerce boom is affecting oceanic ecosystems everywhere. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimates that industrial shipping accounts for 3.1% of global carbon emissions. The industry’s footprint is expected to increase by 2 to 3 times this amount by 2050 if no action is taken. Clean energy projects like the Energy Observer are meant to change that by making merchant ships more sustainable.

Blue Earth: Water in Vast Oceans

Earlier this year, I took a transatlantic trip from New York to Paris. Seeing only water for several days in a row makes one realize how boundless our oceans may seem. The Atlantic Ocean is peculiar in that the continents on both sides of the Atlantic tend to slope toward it. The Encyclopedia Britannica  indicates that the Atlantic “receives the waters of a great proportion of the major rivers of the world; these include the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Orinoco, the Amazon, the Río de la Plata, the Congo, the Niger, the Loire, the Rhine, the Elbe, and the great rivers draining into the Mediterranean, Black, and Baltic seas.”

When it is only you and the sea around you, your perspective on our place in the world shifts. The occasional pack of dolphins and whales, the lost bird in the middle of the ocean, and the gentle sea breeze that caresses your face all serve to remind you how life on our planet depends on water.

While we do not fully know how life started on Earth, scientists agree that it started in water. This astounding, life-giving substance that we take for granted is extremely resilient. Water has been traveling across our solar system, carried by comets in the form of ice for billions of years. Entire worlds—moons like Europa, Enceladus around Jupiter, and Saturn—are covered with frozen water oceans. In fact, according to an interesting article in Popular Mechanics, we have found water in 23 different places across our solar system.

Yet, of all places we know in our galactic neighborhood, Earth is uniquely blessed with water and mild temperatures. Seen from space, Earth is a blue planet. Oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface—an immense area by human standards. When you are in the middle of the ocean, you do not think you can pollute their vast reaches. Yet we do. The ship I was crossing the Atlantic on left its mark, along with the tens of thousands of other ships cruising our oceans on any given day, in the form of carbon and particle emissions.

Sustainable Shipping to Keep Oceans Blue

The team of 50 engineers, architects and designers behind the Energy Observer call it the “first hydrogen vessel around the world,” with a stated vision of “drawing our energy from nature, without damaging it, and without wasting it.” According to their literature, their sustainable pilot ship is “the first self-sufficient energy vessel with zero greenhouse gas or fine particle emissions that is powered by hydrogen and renewable energies, thanks to energy coupling.”

The Energy Observer new vessel uses three common sustainable energies—hydrogen, solar and wind—in concert to maximize efficiency and sustainability. It uses solar and wind power during the day, and hydrogen fuel cells to sail at night.  Their ship, as stated by their team, “is meant to showcase how clean technology can be used to power sea travel. Conventional vessels produce a significant amount of carbon emissions. As such, efforts are being made to make ships more environmentally friendly. Combining various forms of clean power may be the best way to accomplish this task.”

Hydrogen 2.0 and the Oceans

Using sustainable energies in concert is a smart way to ensure we best adapt the strengths of each to our energy-producing technologies. Utilities and smart buildings have been successfully doing this for several years, and research in the areas of energy storage and the production of hydrogen is helping us get closer to more sustainable energy choices.

The work we are doing at Joi Scientific around Hydrogen 2.0 is meant to advance the role of water-based hydrogen production as the source of zero-emissions energy. Specifically, we are working to enable the production of hydrogen energy from water on-site and on-demand, 24/7. Having Hydrogen 2.0 production capabilities on-board would be particularly useful for ships since they are surrounded by water.

The relatively small number of vessels, as compared to the vastness of our oceans, emitting carbon and other particles at sea every day are affecting marine ecosystems all around the world in a very significant way. It is a worthy quest to find and to champion early adopters for new sustainable energies to keep our oceans clean—like the team of innovators currently sailing the world on the aptly named Energy Observer.


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