How the very traditional maritime industry is using the latest technology such as digital twinning as part of a move to tackle pollution within ports from Portsmouth to Rotterdam

The shipping industry is responsible for moving 90 per cent of goods from producers to consumers globally. But it comes at a cost, belching out around a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — something equating to Germany’s annual emissions — and other toxic pollutants.

Some estimates predict that, unless something is done to halt this soon, the carbon emissions could increase by almost 130 per cent by 2050. It follows then that the busiest maritime ports are often regarded as pollution hotspots, thanks to the movement of heavy equipment, trucks service vessels and transport cargo.

That’s why there are concerted moves around the world to replace the fossil fuels that power most of the largest vessels with green alternatives, such hydrogen and ammonia produced with electricity entirely from renewable sources – the sort of “electrofuels” at the centre of retrofit projects.

One such ambitious project is under way in Rotterdam in the Netherlands where an energy transition strategy has been conceived based on four pillars of increasing the efficiency of existing industry, switching from fossil fuels to green alternatives, incorporating a new materials and fuel system and making transport more sustainable.

The Port of Rotterdam
The Port of Rotterdam

Given the 24/7 nature of the industry, this means something of a juggling act, something recognised in the port’s recent mission statement which said: “For the port’s future to be successful, it is important that although port businesses and the shipping industry must be able to continue to develop, they must do so while being mindful of the climate. Among other things, this demands new technologies, new revenue models and new collaborative partnerships.”

Portsmouth International Port is the UK’s largest and most successful municipal port, handling millions of customers and vital cargo across the globe, ideally placed geographically as a hub for ferries, cruise and freight.

But over the past decade, it has also become a living laboratory of green technology. Not only does it have one of the most sustainable terminal buildings in the country, it is also at the forefront of renewable energy and battery research. For example, a machine learning controlled lithium/lead storage battery will complement a rollout of solar and wind power generating capacity across the port.

Portsmouth is committed to becoming the first carbon-neutral UK port by 2030 and the first zero-emission port by 2050, so it’s no surprise that the town is playing a leading role in a new £1.5million Shipping, Hydrogen & Port Ecosystems UK (SHAPE UK) project, funded by the Department for Transport and delivered in partnership with Innovate UK.

SHAPE UK is part of the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition and represents a milestone in the move to innovative low-cost green hydrogen generation and storage systems that will bring significant reduction in carbon emissions and air pollution in and around Portsmouth and other UK ports. Announced in 2020, and part of the Government’s plan to position the UK at the forefront of green shipbuilding and maritime technology, the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition is a £20m investment from the government alongside a further circa £10m from industry to reduce emissions from the maritime sector.

The programme is helping to fund 55 projects across the UK to support the research, design and development of zero emission technology and infrastructure solutions for maritime and to accelerate decarbonisation in the sector.

As part of the project, IOTICS are creating a digital twin – in effect, an interoperable virtual version of the Port including its data, controls and interactions. Digital twining is an exciting, fast emerging technology that can be applied across different use cases.

Sophie Peachey, the company’s head of customer success said: “We will be using digital twins to look at the business benefits of deploying renewable and clean fuels as well as the logistics of refuelling onshore equipment and sea-going vessels in a busy port. We’ll also be setting up the foundations of ways to look at the environmental impacts of switching to clean fuel sources.”

The port’s “twin” will interoperate with existing and new data from the port infrastructure and its activities as well as gathering data from the working green hydrogen electrolyser. The semantically defined digital twins, interoperating with different data sources, will virtualise both dockside and offshore activities and data from the digital twins within the port ecosystem will help to enhance and optimise operations with decision-support tools.

“The power of digital twins comes not from what they can show us, but from how they can securely and meaningfully interact with each other,” added Peachy. “Compositing new twins of a component, machine, person, place, ship or an entire port, city or nation, creates an ecosystem of twins, each acting as a unified access point or gateway to multiple sources of data and information.”

Through twin-enabled data visualisation platforms, a terminal operator, for example, can monitor end-to-end cargo tracking and fleet management services, as well as supervise the workforce in the field. One result of this is more accurate and pinpointed loading and unloading times, creating faster truck and ship turnaround.

Improved accuracy with real-time information could also lead to potential reductions in failures in container movements by cranes and operatives – reducing energy usage and a port’s overall carbon footprint.

Peachy said that digital twins “are revolutionising the way ports make decisions”, offering value in operational efficiency, managing data, and preventing dangerous situations from arising. They will also enable ports to look forward to more streamlined communication and data management with IoT networks.

Helsinki Port by Kosti Keistinen copy
Helsinki Port by Kosti Keistinen copy

The Port of Helsinki, itself something of a sustainable development forerunner, has a pan to be fully carbon neutral by 2035 at the latest, while also pledging to help customers and stakeholders with their own plans, such as joining forces with other Baltic ports to expand the OPS offering in the region through EU funding.

The Port has for the past two years show commitment to supporting ship owners transitioning into biofuels, by carrying part of the price difference for fuels used in harbour and incentive programs for vessels with low emissions are continually being expanded.

But with all this change comes new problems. A recent study by the Harbour Masters division of the Port of Amsterdam, for example, concluded that ports looking to supply new zero or carbon neutral fuels to ships will need to pay special attention to spatial safety when planning ahead for locating and building bunkering infrastructure.

Henri van der Weide, the port’s Environmental Policy Advisor said: “Current legislation and competing space for urban and industrial use demands that ports look far ahead when considering the location, design and implementation of future bunkering infrastructure for ships.”

In addition, he said, the lower energy density of low-carbon fuels such as ammonia and hydrogen compared to fossil fuels is likely to result in more frequent refuelling of ships as well as the development of more decentralised zero-carbon bunker fuel hubs.