COLUMN | Who will be the maritime disruptor? [The Bow Wave]

With reservations for the new “Tesla Model 3” hitting 375,000 vehicles, it is fair to say that Elon Musk has been rather successful in his disruption of the car industry.

His other pet company, SpaceX, was founded with the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars and has already succeeded in chopping the cost of launching anything into space by almost half, primarily by bringing all manufacturing and assembly in house. It is the only space launch provider to list the price of their services on their website – US$62 million for 5,500kg if you’re willing to wait for a 2018 launch.

Having angered his competitors and embarrassed their sponsors in government, Musk has forced the industry to look at the way they operate. Is living off government subsidies sustainable? Is sub-contracting everything except final assembly a viable long-term business idea?

At one point, Musk told an engineer at SpaceX that he had to design a radio for the rocket, but with the limitation that it could cost no more than $10,000. Similar radios from the big defence contractors went for more than ten times that amount.

It took the engineer several months but eventually they succeeded and SpaceX gets to benefit from saving more than 90 per cent on the price of a component. Complete this process for enough components and the savings really start to add up.

So I ask, is there room for an Elon Musk in the maritime realm?

Firstly, it will take a person with a large amount of money that isn’t particularly concerned with the trappings of wealth – such as having a few hundred million dollars when a few tens of millions would be more than enough for their lifestyle. It needs someone who will invest their money in a project they believe in but won’t be concerned about an ROI of three years or less.

Secondly, what areas can be disrupted? Thankfully the maritime realm has seen plenty of technological disruption over the centuries, and even millennia, to know that if something is more cost effective it will win in the end.

There is definitely room for change however. Electric powered workboats are going to be inevitable, but when will the technology migrate to the maritime realm?

Solitary disruption only works so far as you may end up with competing disruptors that cause the market to throw their hands up in the air in dismay at too much choice. Tesla’s solution was to make their patents relating to charging technology open source. If every car can use the same power plugs, more car parks are likely to install them which helps the entire electric vehicle market grow.

The military remains stubbornly attached to the government teat with defence shipyards able to survive without overpriced and unsustainable continual build programs. Slowly the cracks are opening with Austal producing the joint high-speed vessel for the US military. The standard model of sub-contracting as much work as possible to as many electorates as possible remains to ensure political support stays strong. As usual, the taxpayers lose.
I have no idea what the next big change will be in our industry but I can’t wait to see what it is and the driving force behind it.

Ocean currents for electrical currents

One of the problems with solar, wind and tide renewable energy projects is that the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow and the tide has a nasty habit of going slack and changing directions. All of which lead to energy users having to pay for battery packs or a fossil fuel powered back-up supply.

Ocean currents however are quite regular, their strength is only minimally affected by tides, and is generally impervious to the effects of even hurricane force winds. A number of ocean current projects have been proposed in recent years that have effectively taken a land-based wind turbine and anchored it to the seabed.

Ocean currents might only move at a few knots which may seem too slow for a turbine however thanks to water being approximately 800 times denser than air, an equally sized underwater turbine in a two- to three-knot current is able to generate the same amount of power as a wind turbine in 20+ knots.

A common critique of wind turbines is that thanks to the enormous amount of steel and concrete that goes into their mast and foundation the environmental impact can exceed the energy they generate in their lifetime. The concrete and steel also contribute significantly to the cost of construction and installation.

Enter the floating ocean-current turbine currently been developed by a team from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. The whole system is comprised of a float, a counterweight and a three bladed fan attached to a nacelle that houses the electricity-generating components of the unit, which is then anchored to the seabed via a cable or chain. The units float about 100 metres below the surface where the water flows free from disturbance and also means that shipping traffic won’t be affected.

The team plans to trial the units in the Kuroshio Current that runs along the Japanese coast and, if successful, build a 300-unit installation that will be able to generate a gigawatt, enough for 400,000 Japanese homes.

Andrew Baird

Experienced geologist and seabed mining entrepreneur, Andrew reviews cutting edge technology from around the world across a wide spectrum of industries, and considers their potential applications in the work boat world.