Nuclear microreactors onboard? This is still a very fresh concept. However, let’s start from the beginning. The most conventional fuel used onboard the vessel is MDO (Marine Diesel Oil). All alternative fuels like LNG, Ammonia, or Hydrogen, require the same as MDO mechanical engine. The engine needs auxiliary systems, like hydraulic, cooling water, lubrication, exhaust gases installation, etc. This makes the systems very complicated. The propeller is directly on the engine’s shaft, or there is a gear in between. However, the engine rooms are very complicated. Diesel engines, pumps, purifiers, valves, oil bilge separators, lubrication systems, steam systems, pressure systems…
Some of the ships have so-called, electrical-propulsion systems. In that configuration, small diesel engines are generating electrical energy. Propulsion is supplied by electrical energy, created by diesel engines. However, this doesn’t make the engine room less complicated. Only the configuration of the system gets changed. We also increase reliability, but it’s all. And doesn’t matter which type of fuel we will use, we still need lubrication, hydraulic, etc. But do we have an alternative?
Wind & Sails
Of course, we always could back to the sails. However, in the 21st century, we already have problems with, so-called logistic chains. If we would decide to change to sailing boats again? This will not work. The world has to develop, we are reaching the level of the first autonomous ships, they need electrical energy!
Autonomus ships – Perfect place for Nuclear Microreactors
The most important topic, to run the vessel autonomously is reliability. Systems, have to be resistant to failures. Diesel engines, equipped with lube oil, hydraulic oil, cooling water, have many places to fail. Problem with lubrication? Could cause a fatal error. Problem with filter? No more lubrication. Problem with cooling? Better don’t think about consequences… More of that, power generates from the biggest engine in the world RT-Flex 96c is 80 MW.
On the autonomous ship, everything has to be automated. However, it is much easier to automate simple processes. So first, we have to focus to make processes more simple. Then we have to think about, how to automate them. So imagine that we could close the whole engine, with auxiliary systems in the 40ft container. 40ft container which has a power outcome up to 20MW! How is that possible?
Nuclear Microreactor Onboard
Nuclear microreactors are plug-and-play devices. They can easily fit into the 40ft container. This means that 80% of mechanical equipment will not be present anymore. All generators will be replaced by a single container ship, connected to the ship network. Or a couple of containers, for the bigger vessels. The biggest benefit of this solution is that the microreactor could be replaced in port with a spare device. So, for maintenance microreactor can go ashore. And there, professional service can take care of it. After finishing maintenance, it can go to another vessel. Other benefits? No fuel cost. Fewer crew members in the engine room.
Disadvantages? This is still a new solution. I am really looking forward to the first tests. After first runs ashore, most probably after 10 years, it will start to come on board. The same was with the Diesel engine. 10 years after the first test run, diesel finds its way to the first vessel. A few years later it become a standard. But some of the specialists, especially from the Naval market, know that we have already nuclear ships:
Currently, we have a lot of nuclear submarines. This technology is already in use for years by the Navy of the United States. A lot of people know also the movie, “The Hunt for the Red October”. Where submarines were also nuclear. Where the biggest star was However not only the navy. For example, Russia uses nuclear vessels as icebreakers. So the concept itself isn’t new. However, it’s a very complex installation. Where Nuclear Microreactors are intended to be as simple as possible.
Russia and China have also floating nuclear generators. In practice, they are vessels, rearranged or build just to be a power plant.
Conclusion about Nuclear Microreactors Onboard
If I have to bet, for the most sustainable propulsion system, I would say Nuclear Microreactors. With that solution, we could extend the lifetime of the vessels. No fuel costs, no bunkering, less carbon print. Maintenance will be also very easy. A Gantry crane can remove that nuclear generator from the vessel with one move. The list of advantages is very long!
However, we have to think also about the risks. Waste, coming from nuclear energy, is still a big problem. We didn’t develop any solutions. Our best solution, at the moment, is storage. The second big risk is to keep technology sailing, not sinking. This could cost serious pollution to the environment. Therefore, technology needs to pass all necessary certification tests.
The future of Nuclear Microreactors onboard is looking very promising!