Stena Bulk’s announcement of the InfinityMAX hybrid bulk carrier caused a flurry of interest worldwide and raised a number of questions; Tanker Shipping & Trade put some of these to Stena Bulk’s chief executive officer, Erik Hånell
When tanker shipping company Stena Bulk unveiled its InfinityMAX hybrid bulk carrier design, the shipping world’s eyebrows were collectively raised. The concept is radical, pushing the boundaries for zero-carbon, multi-modal vessel design. The vessel, which is designed to carry both dry and wet cargoes in modular compartments, is built with several new core principles that, accumulatively, represent a paradigm shift in cargo transportation.
The ultra-flexible, zero-emissions design has been created in response to the huge challenges the global shipping industry must overcome in the coming decades. The design envisions a world in which the shipping industry plays a crucial role in supplying renewable energy, chemicals, materials, and consumables.
In a proposed advancement that could be considered as impactful as containerisation was for intermodal freight trade, the creation of standardised and modular cargo units that can carry dry bulk, liquid bulk or liquified gas products – such as methane, hydrogen, or ammonia – will significantly streamline the process of transporting wet and dry bulk cargoes.
Each of the InfinityMAX’s modular cargo units are designed to be self-sufficient in terms of their energy use, with wind turbines and solar panels generating the electricity needed for internal systems. The modules require their own power, not only for maintaining or treating the cargo, heating or ventilation as required, but also the pumping out of liquid cargoes and ballast systems. This includes the ballast water treatment systems.
“What we are proposing is innovative, provocative and would radically reshape the way we think about bulk trade”
The modular units have also been designed to be dropped off outside ports and picked up by tugs, avoiding congestion and reducing call times dramatically. Stena Bulk’s chief executive officer, Erik Hånell described the modules as a series of self-propelled barges. However, this should not be confused with the Lighter Aboard Ship (LASH) barge system developed in the 1960s, where standardised dumb inland waterway barges were physically lifted onto the LASH ship for deep-sea passage.
Within the environs of the concept is a liner module featuring container slots. Those with long memories will recall the Fastship project, which proposed a fleet of 40-knot, Rolls-Royce gas turbine container ships for the trans-Atlantic trade to rival the air cargo sector. To minimise turnaround time in port, containers would be pre-stacked and slide onboard in blocks. Ultimately, no port was willing to adapt infrastructure to the container block concept and fuel prices did the rest.
Therefore, a key factor with the InfinityMAX concept is that there is no effort required by ports. The modules will be treated as per any other commercial vessel, which should enhance the concept’s ready adoption at the port interface.
The InfinityMAX concept will use hydrogen as a marine fuel and wind turbines to generate further energy. Collapsible wing sails and a shark-skin hull have also been incorporated in the concept design to significantly improve efficiency. The forepart of the vessel houses the main propulsion units.
When asked about air lubrication of the hull, Mr Hånell noted that this has been considered and that Stena Bulk had experimented with air lubrication previously and understand the issues. It remains an option.
Although the vessels will be crewed for safety and flexibility reasons, Stena Bulk has designed the InfinityMAX concept to be semi-autonomous.
In fact, InfinityMAX has the potential to change the role of onboard crew, with less hard labour and more focus on monitoring and interaction with operators ashore. The vessel appears to include a cruise ship-style swimming pool on the starboard side, not a common feature on commercial vessels.
“We believe that there has to be a new standard of living area to satisfy the crews of tomorrow,” said Mr Hånell. This ‘crew of tomorrow’ is likely to be a riding crew joining an autonomous vessel for short periods, or a crew fulfilling contracts on a semi-autonomous vessel to maintain and update systems.
To attract highly trained and skilled personnel from other competitive industries will require levels of accommodation and comfort not seen on commercial vessels since the 1950s or 60s. In some ways, the InfinityMAX is analogous to the multipurpose breakbulk vessels of that era, but with a far higher level of focussed cargo-carrying adaptability.
“The modular units can be dropped off outside ports and picked up by tugs, avoiding congestion and reducing call times”
Mr Hånell said: “We are extremely proud to unveil our InfinityMAX-concept vessel design, which we believe pushes the boundaries for the future of our industry. What we are proposing here is innovative, provocative and would radically reshape the way we think about bulk trade, rationalising two segments with complementary expertise into one shipping segment that is ready for the challenges of the future.
“The application of advanced technologies – including hydrogen fuel and other efficiency measures – means this is a vessel concept that proves our core philosophy that innovation is key to commercial success, given the challenges that we all face. We will continue to work closely with our innovation partners, leaving no stone unturned to ensure the right advances happen to make the InfinityMAX concept a reality.”
In effect, the InfinityMAX concept drives improved fleet utilisation and has the potential to help standardise supply chains, as well as reducing the unnecessary environmental impact of empty tanks being shipped around the world in search of cargo.
By 2050, the growing need for transporting energy from areas with abundant renewable supply to areas with large energy demand – carried as hydrogen, methanol, methane, and ammonia – will be a defining element of international trade.
With the right level of matured technologies, Stena Bulk believes that an InfinityMAX vessel could come into service between 2030 and 2035. To achieve this, a strengthened and sustained collaborative spirit between industry and technology leaders is a necessity in the coming years.
Mr Hånell said that 95% of the concept involved using technology that was already available and in some cases was already approved by classification societies. The final 5% concerned the connection of the modules, with several concepts in play on how this will be achieved.
Stena Bulk has a proven track record of bring innovations in ship design to reality and has the team and experience to manage the project, often the stumbling block in shipping innovation. Therefore, it is with some confidence that a version of the InfinityMAX will be in the water by the middle of the next decade.
No price has been mentioned for the InfinityMAX concept, but in the world of commercial shipping, the concept could lead to the biggest shake up since the invention of the shipping container. The shipping container itself stemmed from logistics systems used in the military. The InfinityMAX concept would also offer a highly efficient way to deliver a range of hardware and supplies for the military, which might be one avenue for funding and delivering the concept.