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Ship Propulsion Through The Ages: An Overview

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Table of content

  • Pre-Industrial Revolution: Ship Propulsion

  • Post-Industrial Revolution: Marine Propulsion

    • Reciprocating Steam Engines

    • Steam Turbines

    • Diesel Engines

    • Gas Turbines

    • LNG Engines

    • Diesel-Electric Propulsion

    • Hydrogen Cells

Ship Propulsion
Ship Propulsion

Ship propulsion, a cornerstone of maritime history, remains an indispensable facet of global trade, exploration, and connectivity. At its core, the ingenious mechanism propels vessels through the vast and often unpredictable expanse of our world's waterways. It is a testament to humanity's relentless pursuit of innovation and efficiency.


In the following pages, we embark on a journey through time and technology, tracing the evolution of maritime propulsion methods. From the primitive yet remarkably effective human-powered oars and sails of antiquity to the cutting-edge wonders of hydrogen fuel cells in the present day, this article immerses us in the ceaseless quest to harness the power of waterborne transport.


Pre-Industrial Revolution: Ship Propulsion

pre-industrial revolution

Before the 19th century ushered in the era of coal-fired steam engines propelling ships, the maritime world relied on two ancient forces for propulsion: oars and wind. Sail dominated the realm of merchant vessels, but during times when naval warfare demanded maneuverability and speed, galleys with oars took precedence. The historical accounts tell of Greek navies deploying triremes in the Peloponnesian War, just as the Romans did at the Battle of Actium.


However, as naval gunnery evolved in the 16th century, favoring firepower over agility, sail-powered warships began a reign that spanned three centuries.


In today's maritime landscape, human-powered propulsion primarily finds its place on small boats or as auxiliary power for sailboats. Human exertion takes the form of pushing poles, rowing, or pedaling.


The propulsion by sail is characterized by a raised sail on a tall mast, braced by stays, and controlled by ropes. Sails remained the predominant method of commercial propulsion until the late 19th century. Even well into the 20th century, they persisted on routes where consistent wind prevailed, and coal was scarce – think of the South American nitrate trade. In contemporary times, sails have transitioned from utilitarian necessity to instruments of leisure and competition. {Ship Propulsion}


Yet, there have been inventive forays into harnessing wind power for modern vessels, including kites, turbo sails, rotor sails, and windmills. The primary aim in bringing back the idea of harnessing wind: Fuel efficiency. More on that here.


Post-Industrial Revolution : Marine Propulsion


post-industrial revolution

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, shipping was slow and expensive. Ships were powered by wind and sails, which meant that they were at the mercy of natural elements. Voyages could take months or even years, and goods were often lost or damaged during transit.


The steam engine was one of the most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines allowed ships to travel much faster and more reliably.


Steamships could travel against the wind and in all weather conditions. This made shipping more efficient and affordable, and it led to a dramatic increase in global trade.

However, as the 1900s came around, newer engines began to replace it. Diesel engines, outboard motors, and fast gas turbines became the top choices for faster vessels.

Then, in the mid-1900s, a groundbreaking development occurred - nuclear reactors were used to generate steam for powering warships and icebreakers. Although attempts were made to apply this nuclear power to commercial ships in the late 1950s, it didn't gain popularity.


There's another interesting development in the field: electric motors running on large battery packs. Submarines and electric boats utilize them for quiet and efficient movement through the water. There's also consideration of using them more widely for eco-friendly ship propulsion.


Let’s delve deep into the scientific and technological aspects of each propulsion mode and argue why some modes lost favors among shipowners, and why some other modes were literally brought back from the dead, to power the gargantuan 400-metre-plus behemoths of today.


Reciprocating Steam Engines: Steam power has played a pivotal role in maritime propulsion, operating through two primary engine types: reciprocating and turbine. Reciprocating engines rely on steam to move pistons linked to a crankshaft, while turbine engines use steam to drive blades on a spinning shaft. The power generated can be directly utilized for propulsion or transmitted through various systems, like mechanical, electrical, or hydraulic.


In the 1800s, steam emerged as a dominant force in marine propulsion, with a significant surge in steam-powered ships occurring in 1869 due to substantial technological advancements.


Progress in steam propulsion continued throughout the 19th century, marked by innovations like the steam surface condenser, eliminating the need for seawater in boilers. This, coupled with boiler advancements, enabled higher steam pressures and the adoption of more efficient multiple expansion (compound) engines. Transitioning from paddle wheels to screw propellers further enhanced efficiency.{Marine Propulsion}


The late 19th century saw the widespread adoption of multiple-expansion steam engines, which boosted efficiency by routing steam from a high-pressure cylinder to a lower-pressure one. Steam power had firmly established itself as a driving force in maritime technology, setting the stage for the future of marine propulsion.


Steam Turbines: Steam turbines, a vital component of marine propulsion, harness the power of high-speed steam to rotate blades on a spinning shaft. Unlike reciprocating engines, they offer seamless, continuous rotation, making them efficient and reliable. Steam turbines came into prominence as technological advancements transformed maritime power systems.


Steam Turbines
Source: Free3d

Their introduction led to increased speed and efficiency, replacing earlier piston-driven engines on many vessels. Over time, steam turbines have evolved, adopting new materials and designs, contributing significantly to the evolution of modern maritime propulsion systems, ensuring smoother and more dependable journeys across the seas.


Steam turbines were phased out in maritime use due to their lower fuel efficiency, complex maintenance, size, environmental concerns, advancements in alternative technologies, and the simplicity of modern power transmission systems.


Diesel Engines: The foundations for modern marine diesel engines can be traced back to the late 19th century when Rudolf Diesel's revolutionary invention took Centre stage. His engine design, hinging on the principle of compression ignition, marked a departure from the steam engines that had dominated maritime propulsion. Compression ignition involves heating air through compression and igniting the injected fuel, a concept that promises superior fuel efficiency.{Ship Propulsion}


Diesel Engines

Historically, the advent of marine diesel engines heralded a new era in maritime technology. They gradually supplanted steam engines due to their lower fuel consumption, reduced maintenance requirements, and heightened reliability. The early 20th century bore witness to the widespread adoption of diesel-powered vessels, fundamentally altering the global shipping landscape.

The impact of marine diesel engines on history was profound. They extended the range of voyages, enabling ships to traverse longer distances with fewer fuel stops, thus expanding trade routes and bolstering global commerce. During both World Wars, diesel-powered vessels played pivotal roles in naval operations, underscoring their strategic importance.

Marine diesel engines come in various types, each tailored to specific vessel needs. Slow-speed two-stroke engines, operating below 300 revolutions per minute (rpm), offer robust power for large vessels like cargo ships. Medium-speed four-stroke engines, with operating speeds of around 500 rpm, provide versatility for diverse marine applications. High-speed engines, exceeding 1000 rpm, suit smaller vessels.


Within these categories, construction designs include crosshead, trunk, or opposed piston configurations, each with distinct advantages. The choice of engine type depends on factors like vessel size, purpose, and operational requirements.


Moreover, marine diesel engines emerged as environmentally superior, emitting fewer greenhouse gases compared to their coal and steam counterparts.

Gas Turbines: Gas turbines have found extensive application in the maritime industry, notably in various warships and some passenger ships like the jetfoil. They are often used in combination with other engine types, reflecting their versatility and unique advantages.


Gas Turbines
Source: Researchgate

One common approach is the Combined Diesel or Gas (CODOG) propulsion system, where ships have both gas turbines and diesel engines. This setup addresses the challenge of gas turbines' lower thermal efficiency at low power outputs. Diesel engines are used for cruising, while gas turbines are engaged for higher speeds when needed. This hybrid approach optimizes efficiency and performance.

In the case of passenger ships, gas turbines are often installed primarily to reduce emissions in environmentally sensitive areas or while in port, aligning with stringent environmental regulations.


Some warships and modern cruise ships take the concept further by incorporating steam turbines into a Combined Gas or Gas (COGAG) system. Waste heat from a gas turbine's exhaust is harnessed to boil water, creating steam to drive a steam turbine. This combined cycle enhances thermal efficiency, rivalling or surpassing that of diesel engines alone. However, the costlier fuel required for gas turbines means that operational expenses remain higher.{Ship Propulsion}


Gas turbines are increasingly favored in LNG carriers due to their rapid acceleration, lower emissions compliance, and efficient control when transporting temperature-sensitive cargo. Their high power-to-weight ratio and quick start-up times enhance safety and efficiency during LNG operations, making them well-suited for this specialized maritime application


LNG Engines: Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) engines are gaining traction in the shipping industry as a strategic response to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets. LNG, a cleaner-burning fuel, is seen as a bridge between traditional marine fuels and future zero-emission technologies.

Gas Turbines

Shipping companies are increasingly turning to LNG engines for several compelling reasons. First and foremost, LNG significantly lowers GHG emissions compared to conventional marine fuels, with a notable reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) and virtually no sulfur oxide (SOx) and particulate matter emissions. This aligns with international regulations such as the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) sulfur cap, fostering compliance and sustainability.


Additionally, LNG offers cost efficiencies. While the initial investment in LNG propulsion systems may be higher, the lower cost of LNG fuel compared to traditional marine fuels results in operational savings over the long term. This cost-effectiveness makes LNG engines an economically viable choice for shipping companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint.

Furthermore, LNG is readily available and boasts a well-established infrastructure, with an increasing number of LNG bunkering facilities around the world. This accessibility ensures a consistent and reliable fuel supply for vessels equipped with LNG engines.

As global awareness of the environmental impact of shipping grows, LNG engines represent a practical solution to meet stringent emissions targets while maintaining operational efficiency.


Shipping companies are increasingly recognizing the advantages of this cleaner-burning fuel, making LNG engines a preferred choice for reducing GHG emissions in the maritime industry. {Marine Propulsion}


Diesel-Electric Propulsion: Diesel-electric propulsion is an innovative and versatile system increasingly adopted in shipping. Instead of directly driving propellers, this system employs diesel engines to generate electricity, which then powers electric motors connected to the ship's propellers. This configuration enhances maneuverability, operational efficiency, and maintenance flexibility. A notable example of diesel-electric propulsion is The Wonder of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship.


Diesel-Electric Propulsion
Source: Wartsila

It utilizes a diesel-electric system where its four diesel engines primarily serve to generate electricity. This approach allows for precise control over power distribution and speed, optimizing the ship's performance. Such systems enhance fuel efficiency, reduce emissions, and provide exceptional maneuvering capabilities, making them ideal for large vessels like cruise ships or offshore platforms.


Hydrogen Cells: Hydrogen fuel cells are at the forefront of the maritime industry's push toward greener and more sustainable ship propulsion systems. In these innovative setups, hydrogen gas is combined with oxygen from the air within fuel cells to produce electricity, which then powers the ship's electric motors.


Hydrogen Cells
Source: iStock

This emerging technology is particularly promising for future ship engines as it offers zero-emission propulsion, releasing only water vapor as a byproduct. Several pilot projects and initiatives are underway to develop hydrogen fuel cell-powered vessels, ranging from passenger ferries to cargo ships.


The versatility and eco-friendliness of hydrogen fuel cells position them as a transformative force in maritime transportation, reducing carbon emissions and helping to build a cleaner and more sustainable future for the shipping industry.


The discussions on ship propulsion reveal a dynamic landscape, marked by continuous innovation and a quest for greener and more efficient solutions. From the historical evolution of marine engines, such as steam and diesel, to the contemporary adoption of gas turbines, LNG engines, and even hydrogen fuel cells, the maritime industry has consistently adapted to meet evolving demands.


The future of ship propulsion is undeniably intertwined with sustainability and environmental responsibility. As global awareness of climate change intensifies, shipping companies are under increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This has led to the exploration of alternative fuels and propulsion systems, such as LNG and hydrogen, which offer the promise of zero-emission shipping.


Efficiency remains a core focus, with technologies like diesel-electric systems and gas turbines optimizing vessel performance. Moreover, the combination of different propulsion methods, such as diesel and electric, showcases the industry's commitment to finding the most efficient and eco-friendly solutions.


Written by ANKUR KUNDU

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