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Electric propulsion & sustainability headline METS trade show

I always look forward to my annual trek to METS—the world’s largest business to business trade show focused on recreational boats. It takes place at a sprawling convention center in Amsterdam in mid-November, attracting nearly 1,700 exhibitors from 53 countries and a paltry 11,000 or so visitors.
There were lots of innovative products ranging from lightweight boat building materials and engines of all sorts and sizes to new twists on survival gear and, of course, electronics. But to me this year, overshadowing the many display halls of hardware was a clear message that the days are numbered and dwindling for traditional propulsion systems.
Bringing this home on day one of the three-day event was a keynote address by the head of Feadship, a major builder of megayachts based in Holland. He told the audience that commercial ships are working toward cutting their engine emissions in half by 2050 and asked how many people there thought that was possible. Only a few hands went up in an audience of perhaps 300. The speaker, Henk de Vries, drew surprised looks by telling the group that Feadship would accomplish the same 50% cut in the emissions of the yachts they build by 2025. They’d do this by installing only alternative propulsion systems—presumably hybrid electric or another technology.

What’s a hybrid?
For anyone who isn’t tuned in to hybrid drives, like those offered in Prius, Volt, Tesla or a bunch of other automobiles, hybrid-electric refers to propulsion systems that link traditional internal combustion engines with generators that pack electric power into high-efficiency batteries. The cars, or in our case boats, can run on either piston power or toggle over to battery-powered electric motors. Typically the batteries can also be charged via land-based plug-in systems or solar panels.
One of Feadship’s current projects is a hydrogen-powered vessel while another is electric, so de Vries’ bold projection is more than pie in the sky. Adding credibility is the fact that in 2015 the yard turned out the first hybrid-electric-powered superyacht, the 274-foot Savannah.
Another clear sign that electric propulsion of some sort is coming fast are plans in the UK to significantly bump up the electric skills of equipment installers to meet requirements of hybrid-electric and other systems. Electric propulsion systems aren’t just for megayachts. Several manufacturers, both US and foreign, displayed electric propulsion systems--inboard and outboard--for smaller boats.
Closely aligned with the push toward the use of electric technology was an emphasis on power storage systems, primarily lithium-ion batteries. While the various chemistries contained in these batteries offer different benefits and, in some cases, risks—there’s a big challenge coming down the track. The bad news is the problem associated with disposal of lithium-ion batteries when they reach their end-use date and can no longer be repurposed. Just how the mountains of old li-ion batteries from cars, trucks, airplanes, electronics and other equipment will be safely dealt with is a mystery. A Chinese maker of lithium-ion-powered electric propulsion for smaller boats told me that by the time that happens—new technology will come along to solve the problem. Maybe.
Also on display at the show was a focus on protecting the environment by changing the way boats are built and disposed of when damaged by storms or abandoned due to their age or poor condition. Sustainability was a key concept and goal mentioned time and again—underscored by the many displays of products made from recycled and underused materials. One—Lignia Yacht—won its category in the trade show’s prestigious DAME Award (more about other winners next week). Lignia is made from softwood harvested from trees grown in sustainable plantations. The material is treated with resin to improve stability, hardness and durability—and yes, ‘lookswise’ it’s a knockoff for teak.
Biofouling was a hot topic as well. Albert Willemsen, a consultant with ICOMIA—an international association of marine industry groups—pointed to underwater marine fouling as the major cause for the rise of water-borne invasive species. Speakers talked of the need to identify methods other than toxic paints and coatings to prevent or minimize fouling. An encouraging trend they said is that biocide-free solutions such as ultrasonic devices and wraps are becoming much more popular among boaters.

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