The ship of the future, as imaged by Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, the world's biggest ocean carrier of automobiles and heavy machinery, would work like a horse, carrying 10,000 cars in its belly.
But it would move like a dolphin, using wind, sun, waves and some hydrogen, instead of diesel fuel, for propulsion, leaving behind nothing but heat and vapor in the air and water.
For now, the E/S Orcelle, the environmentally sound ship named for an endangered dolphin, is nothing more than a concept and isn't likely to become part of the world fleet of cargo ships any time soon. But its makers say elements could be used to improve the shipping industry's pollution record in the next two decades as demand for imported goods explodes and the amount of cargo shipped by sea doubles.
"By taking a look into the year 2025, with the ambition to have a ship that did not emit anything, neither to air nor to sea - i.e., not using fossil fuels at all for propulsion - the Orcelle took shape," said Lena Blomqvist, the shipping line's vice president of environment. "The four elements now used on her - solar cells, sails, fins and fuel cells ... exist in smaller scales. We are certain that all these techniques will be further developed and scaled up so that they can be used on ships in the future."
A model of the Orcelle was on display recently at the Maryland Science Center near downtown Baltimore to coincide with the Volvo Ocean Race. It looked more like something out of a Star Wars movie than a real-life oceangoing vessel, with a sleek covered body and three large and rigid sails jutting straight up. The design calls for solar panels to cover those sails to harness the sun and wind. It also calls for 12 underwater fins to capture wave energy.
Hydrogen cells, like those proposed by President Bush in cars of the future, would replace the engines that now run on bunker fuel, or low-grade diesel.
The Orcelle would be 820 feet long and eight decks high, with the space of 14 football fields. It could hold 3,500 more cars than the ships in use today.
If produced, the new ships could replace Wallenius Wilhelmsen's 60 vessels, which burn 900,000 tons of fuel annually, with a fleet that produces zero emissions. The design would also eliminate the tanks of so-called ballast water that help stabilize a ship but also carry non-native and potentially harmful marine species with them to new ports.
The Scandinavian shipping line calls on the port of Baltimore frequently as one of its biggest customers, bringing in the likes of Jaguars from Europe and carrying back such cargo as John Deere tractors.
The company's ideas have caught the attention of environmental groups and other industry observers, who say current environmental standards for oceangoing ships are decades behind those for cars, power plants and other polluters. But, they say, the technology isn't yet available for the Orcelle and other concept ships.
That doesn't mean other, less-ambitious changes shouldn't be made in the meantime, according to Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group.
In one hour, a cargo ship now can produce as much smog-forming emissions as 350,000 cars, the group says. Multiply that by the more than 300 U.S. ports and thousands of ships that call on them each a year.
"The numbers are huge," said Teri Shore, the network's clean vessels campaign manager. "People who live in coastal areas, or within 200 miles of the coastline, are being exposed to diesel exhaust from ships."
The American Lung Association calls diesel locomotive and marine engines among the "most dangerous and under-regulated" sources of air pollution, causing an estimated 4,000 premature deaths a year and prompting 2,000 annual emergency room visits for children with asthma.
The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency with authority over commercial vessels, also says emissions contribute to ocean degradation and global warming.
Member nations of the maritime organization first agreed to a treaty in 1973 to regulate pollution from ship accidents and normal operations.
But the Environmental Protection Agency, which does not regulate foreign-flagged vessels that make up the bulk the world fleet, called the diesel ships' emission requirements "relatively modest."
Some shipping interests and member states fear that too-restrictive controls would hamper commerce and drive up costs too drastically.
Wallenius Wilhelmsen's Blomqvist said that shipping lines would support more-efficient engines that pollute less because they have an interest in cutting their fossil-fuel consumption, especially as fuel prices rise.