For eons now, logistics has been about sea, land, and air freight. In other words: ships, trucks, and planes. Easy. On the sidelines, when it comes to air freight, drones are beginning to push their way in, airships are being developed, and now there is even a competitor coming in from sea level: a cargo hydrofoil in spe that is marketing itself as a “fast cargo ship to replace air freight”!
Welcome to Boundary Layer Technologies – a startup founded in Alameda, California, USA, in 2018, which has set itself the goal of decarbonizing international logistics: “We have a vision to reduce global GHG emissions by at least 1%, and we plan to do it by replacing air and sea freight with zero-emissions alternatives.” One of those alternatives is its ARGO: a zero-emissions hydrofoil containership. In a recent TechCrunch+ interview, Boundary Layer Technologies’ CEO, Ed Kearney threw down the gauntlet: “We will be making container ships, but we’re not competing with container ships. We are replacing air freight.”
Faster than ordinary sea freight, cheaper than air freight
His argument is that air freight is expensive “Think of components and other goods they are shipping by air freight. They are already paying very high freight rates of $2-3 per kilogram. Inter-Asia is the most exciting market for us, because it’s the biggest market in terms of air freight. Those customers already have very high-value goods that need to move quickly and we’re able to offer them an alternative to air freight that’s half the price and comparable transit times.” With the ongoing maritime miseries – port and container congestions, and still much higher sea rates in places, with increases expected again, particularly in Asia this month as the Shanghai lockdown eases, the argument might currently not be as strong as it was prior to the pandemic. However, there will no doubt be better times ahead.
70% more payload than a B747 freighter
At a capacity of 20 TEU, the ARGO has a 70% higher payload compared to a B747 freighter. True – though it will, of course, only be able to cover waterway stretches, and, in adverse weather, only where waves remain under 5 m in height. A video on the company’s website points to three proposed traffic areas: Western Europe, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. At a cruise speed of 40 knots, it is double as fast as traditional container ships, has large potential gains when it comes to loading and unloading at ports – it can turnaround in 2 hours, compared to the average 3 days for large vessels – and it only requires a standard mobile truck crane for loading/unloading, so is flexible in where it can be docked. The hydrofoil is similar to an aircraft in that it needs roughly the same amount of thrust to “lift off” and retain speed. The greater the weight of the containers, the more power required: “An aircraft travels at 500 knots — we travel 40 — but they still need 12 times more power. In a nutshell, the way we solved [the problem of weight and thrust] was by taking a smaller vessel, you get very weight-conscious, and you need a large amount of power. That means we need big fuel cells and batteries.”
Beating everyone else with its green score
If all goes to plan, then the area where it wins hands-down, is sustainable operations. ARGO is powered by liquid hydrogen and fuel cells. “All our vessels will be zero-emissions, and propulsion ultimately comes from electric motors,” Kearney explains. “For the container ship, we need to have a range of 1,500 nautical miles. Batteries only really get you to about 100 nautical miles, so for cargo, we are doing liquid hydrogen. That will even get us to 10,000 nautical miles if you wanted to have very large tanks.” Graphs on Boundary Layer Technologies’ website, show emission comparisons for a 7.5-ton shipment on three routes. For example: Rotterdam to Bilbao would take 2 days in transit time for both air freight and ARGO, whilst a ship would need 7 days. However, air freight would lead to 5,250kg of CO2 emissions, conventional sea freight would emit 210 kg, whilst ARGO would result in zero emissions.
Going live in 2024
It is amusing to learn that though the company raised its millions in capital for the production of passenger vessels, and already has a great many international pre-orders for these, its real interest is – and always has been – cargo. Against the odds, it built a single-container hydrofoil in just 10 weeks, using the USD 150,000 provided by a start-up funder called Y Combinator. This proved to be a hit, Boundary Layer Technologies now has its sights on entering the USD 100 billion air freight market with its high-speed hydrogen-powered container ship. Letters of Intent have already been signed with three unnamed launch partners in electronics and automotive supply. “We’re currently working with cargo owners and freight forwarders, and we will be launching ARGO on these major trade lanes in [the third quarter of] 2024,” Ed Kearney promises in the company video on its LinkedIn page.
With the number of ocean carriers moving into air freight in recent months, this is no doubt a highly interesting proposition for them, and an opportunity for true multimodality. The questions that remain, are: will there be enough liquid hydrogen to fuel these vessels? How quickly can they be built to fill pre-orders? And how will they fit in, process-wise, if port congestions continue to pose a problem?
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