Blue Angel on the High Seas

The Alfred Wegener Institute’s research vessels are operated as sustainably as possible

Needless to say, today environmental protection is also an important topic in the context of shipping. Accordingly, especially at a Helmholtz Centre like the Alfred Wegener Institute, whose experts regularly conduct research at sea, sustainability on board is a priority. This can be seen not only in the AWI’s latest and retrofitted ships, but also in the somewhat older models, like the Polarstern, which has been traversing the icy waters of the high north and deep south since 1982.

On an average of 300 days a year, the Polarstern can be found forging her way through the rough seas of the polar regions, using her nearly 20,000-horsepower-strong engines to break through thick ice when necessary. In the process, she consumes roughly 900 tons of fuel in a month; nevertheless, the environmental impact is kept to a minimum – and not simply because ships generally deliver a better eco-balance than other forms of transportation, but also because on board the Polarstern, the available resources are used as sparingly as possible.

For example, the 118-metre-long ship can reach speeds of up to 16 knots (30 kilometres per hour), but only rarely runs at top speed. “Normally the researchers travel at 10.5 knots maximum, which is less than 20 kilometres per hour,” explains Marius Hirsekorn, who is responsible for the logistical coordination of the AWI’s research ships. Traveling at lower speeds cuts fuel consumption and massively reduces emissions of the climate-relevant gas carbon dioxide.

Moreover, the ship doesn’t run on fuel oil, but diesel, a significantly cleaner choice. “The Polarstern bunkers the cleanest variant available, DMA, which is nearly as good as the diesel used in commercial trucks,” says Hirsekorn, who served as a container-ship captain before joining the AWI.

Further, environmental protection isn’t only important in the engine room, but everywhere else on board. After all, with up to 44 crewmembers and up to 55 researchers and technicians, there are nearly one hundred people on board, all of whom need to take showers and use the toilet. A sophisticated filtering system cleans the wastewater, producing crystal-clear water that would be safe for human consumption, but which is thrown overboard. In contrast, no litter is thrown overboard, even though, according to the regulations for high-seas shipping, doing so is permissible for biodegradable substances like wood or cardboard. On the Polarstern, the waste is clearly separated into food waste, plastics, and paper, collected in a six-metre-long container, and properly disposed of at the next port of call. Only in the event that the container becomes full before reaching the next port, which can occasionally happen, as the ship’s journeys can take up to 80 days, is part of the waste burnt in an incinerator commonly used on high-seas ships.

On the AWI’s 55-metre-long Research Vessel Heincke, environmental protection is a considerably simpler matter, because the maximum of twelve researchers and the same number of crewmembers never spend more than a month on board, sailing through the North Sea and in the North Atlantic to Spitsbergen. The waste that accumulates and is sorted on board can be easily disposed of after returning to Bremerhaven. Once back at her homeport, the ship can also be supplied with electrical power from shore, eliminating the need to burn fuel. Since the main engines of the Heincke, which was first commissioned in 1990, had begun showing their age, in early 2015 they were replaced by three diesel engines that produce a combined output of 2140 horsepower, but are more economical than their predecessors.

Further, the Heincke only had sufficient room for a soot and exhaust filtering system, which uses a catalytic converter to remove nitrogen oxides, once its original smokestack was dismantled. The filtering system is directly integrated into the new smokestack and, since its installation, the AWI’s second-largest research ship has been cruising the North Sea and North Atlantic as cleanly as possible, thanks to the cutting-edge technology used.

The 21-metre-long Mya II, which was commissioned in 2013, was rewarded with the Blue Angel eco-label for ship design. “With this new ship, we were able to include the soot and exhaust filtering during the planning phase”, says Hirsekorn. The ship’s engine runs on the same diesel used by commercial trucks, and the biocide-free coating for the hull, which is harmless for marine organisms, was also there from the beginning. Since the Mya II, based in List on the island of Sylt, is used for coastal research and primarily only makes one-day cruises, any litter and wastewater can easily be disposed of back at port. The ship’s auxiliary diesel engine, which supplies electrical power on board, features a separate soot filter, and in port, the Mya II uses a power cable from the shore.

The AWI’s next project for environmental protection at sea is the newbuilding of the Uthören and is currently under construction at the Fassmer shipyard in Berne/Lower Saxony. The successor to the 30-metre-long research cutter Uthörn, which was commissioned in 1982, will make a further contribution to sustainable seafaring: it will be the first ship in the German research fleet with environmentally friendly methanol propulsion. When the alcohol methanol is burned, significantly fewer soot particles are released into the air than with petrol, diesel or heavy oil. One challenge, however, is the energy density as alcohol has only half the energy density of diesel. The new Uthörn will therefore be equipped with significantly larger fuel tanks so that it can store enough methanol to maintain a long range. In order to operate the new ship in an almost CO2-neutral way from the beginning after the handover at the end of 2022, a supply contract for green methanol is to be agreed. Methanol is referred to as green when its production is coupled with renewable energies. Another advantage of a methanol drive is that methanol is highly soluble and quickly processed by bacteria in water, preventing it from posing a major environmental hazard in the event of a leak.

In future, the Uthörn successor, like the original Uthörn, will take marine science students on board and teach them about practical work at sea. In addition to the training cruises, the Uthörn successor will also remain central to the Alfred Wegener Institute's long-term research and sampling in the German Bight. Four researchers can stay at sea on the research cutter together with the crew for up to five days, covering a maximum of 1,200 nautical miles.