Straight out of Frelard: Leaner, greener fishing boat engines

A Norwegian-born mariner turned inventor and carbon crusader debuts a technology that may drastically reduce fuel costs and emissions at sea.

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But aboard ships, which spend much longer periods underway, auxiliary power units are major fuel sinks. That’s because they continue powering the generators, redundantly and inefficiently, at sea as well as in port. Inventors and entrepreneurs have tried and failed for decades to instead draw steady, reliable electrical power off the massive main engine, through all its fluctuating RPMs. The prospect has become even more attractive as ports install shoreside power to reduce pollution. It might be possible to eliminate APUs entirely.

Skaar set up as Gen-Tech Global in a second-floor office in the maritime strip along Leary Way, the holdout “demilitarized zone,” as he calls it, between gentrified Ballard and Fremont. From there, he says, “we tried everything, even magnetic couplings” to draw steady power off the main engine. “It didn’t work.”

Finally he settled on a hydraulic pump that would transfer power from the main engine’s spinning shaft to a hydraulic motor, which would drive the electric generator. The problem — ultimately a software problem — was regulating the pump to maintain a steady flow. Skaar solved it with the help of a couple “rocket scientists” from Norway — one his cousin Ralph, the other an engineering professor who was so intrigued he came to Seattle, spent more than three years on the project, and became a partner. He devised the software that assures the critical steady flow.

Last year Skaar received a patent for the system, freeing him to go out and market. He’s shunned venture capitalists, funding Gen-Tech from his maritime pension and, with his employees, retaining ownership. They have four prototypes deployed now, on vessels based in Seattle, Norway, Malta and New Bedford, Mass. Various trials have returned bracing results. One by FloScan found net “phenomenal” fuel savings, about 13 to 26 percent at lower vessel speed and half that at high speed — and, even more impressive, a 45 to 50 percent reduction in nitrous oxides, which are potent greenhouse gases, potential acidifying factors, and human health hazards. Seattle’s Jensen Marine attested to observing similar fuel reductions in another demonstration.

Skaar touts other benefits from losing the auxiliary power units: space savings, noise and exhaust reductions, far fewer moving parts and maintenance costs. “We ran it problem-free [in his crab boat] for 12,000 hours. The only thing we had to change was a bearing — a $500, two-hour job.”

All this, he claims, for an upfront cost, depending on size, of $30,000 to $75,000, comparable to the cost of auxiliary power units. Trouble is, the boats already have APUs, and as Skaar knows well, his brethren are conservative types, loath to pay up front for something new. He’s considering “leasing the units and taking 80 percent of the savings, for perpetual cash flow.” If that ever happens, humble Frelard might become the center of a global engine-room empire, harvesting cash from fuel savings on all the seas.

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Oct 28, 6:48 p.m. Inappropriate

One obvious point the article doesn't address: Why should it be so hard to draw electric power off the main engine when cars have been doing it for a hundred years?

BillT

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