Just Google it

Last December Google announced that it was making the largest ever renewable energy purchase by a non-utility. It added 842 megawatts of renewable energy capacity increasing its overall renewable energy capacity to 2 gigawatts—something the company likened to “to taking nearly 1 million cars off the road”—as it works toward tripling its renewable energy purchases with the goal of powering 100% of operations through renewable energy by 2025. Google is the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy on the planet. It says: “these contracts not only help minimize the environmental impact of our services—they also make good business sense by ensuring good prices.” On May 12 2016 Google’s owner, Alphabet, took top spot from Apple in as the most valuable publicly listed company by market capitalization on the Financial Times Global 500 rankings.

And what’s all this got to do with shipping? I hear you cry. Well, dear reader, Google just filed a patent for a revolutionary new ship design that focuses on wind power.

In a departure from systems that use wind power to propel the vessel Google’s patent uses an energy kite to generate electricity. The energy kite simulates the tip of a wind turbine blade, the part of a turbine that makes most of the energy. Rotors on the kite act like propellers on a helicopter to launch it from the ground station. Once the kite is in flight, air moving across the rotors forces them to rotate, driving a generator to produce electricity, which then travels down the tether to the grid. The tether is made of conductive wires surrounding a high strength core. The tether connects the kite to the ground station, and transfers power and communications between the kite and ground station in both directions. The ground station holds onto the tether, and is used as a resting place for the energy kite when not in flight. The ground station occupies a smaller footprint than conventional sailing rigs. A computer system uses GPS and other sensors, along with thousands of real-time calculations, to guide the kite to the flight path with the strongest and steadiest winds for maximum energy generation. The intention is to fly the kite 500m above the ship where the wind speeds are stronger.

Google’s innovation won’t use that clean electricity to propel its engine but to power an electro-dialysis system to extract CO2 from seawater to produce hydrogen gas. A refinery system uses the CO2 and H2 through the Fischer-Tropsch process to produce the synthetic diesel fuel C11H24. It then converts this synthetic fuel into ethanol by using syngas fermentation an alternative fuel for shipping.

Whether Google’s technology solution is the right answer for every ship in the world its intervention is likely to help further accelerate the long overdue transition in shipping to renewable energy which as Google says:

“Better for our business and better for our environment”. 

It’s no accident that Google’s aim to shift all its business systems to 100% power from renewable energy contributes to its position at the top of the FT Global 500 leader board.