Carbon Fiber at the Core of New Renewable Energy Ferry

Imagine boarding a ferry and knowing that the boat’s structural components are made primarily of carbon fiber and foam. Moreover, the ship is powered entirely by electricity. How cool would that be? Well, it will eventually be reality in New Zealand. A project recently announced by a group of companies in joint partnership should be ready to launch in the near future.

Ship and airplane designers have been finding creative ways to use carbon fiber for quite some time now. In fact, carbon fiber boat hulls are fairly common. What makes this new ship different is a design featuring both carbon fiber and foam in a hybrid application. The design will create a lighter ship that travels faster and requires less energy.

Building the Ship

Current carbon fiber methodology calls for fabricating each component of a ship individually. So engineers use manual layups to create everything from hulls to wall panels and interior components. The New Zealand venture intends to do things differently.

Manual layups will still be used to build the hull for their new ship. The hull will also be made entirely from carbon fiber. But the rest of the carbon fiber components will be made from mass-produced sheets that incorporate both carbon fiber and foam.

The most exciting thing is the fact that the sheets will be cut to fit. Just like a manufacturer might cut individual components from steel or aluminum sheets, the New Zealand consortium will cut their carbon fiber/foam pieces from large sheets using CNC machines.

Why is this such a breakthrough? There are a couple of reasons, beginning with the capability of combining carbon fiber and foam in a single panel. Doing so would be much harder with a manual layup. By opting for the panel construction, much larger sheets can be produced more quickly, more efficiently, and with very little hassle.

The other breakthrough here is cost. Mass-producing large sheets of carbon fiber and foam that can be cut to fit is a lot more cost-effective than doing everything via manual layups. The plan will reduce the cost of manufacturing a single ship significantly, explains Utah-based Rock West Composites.

The Renewable Energy Component

Designing the new ferry is not just about making a composite ship that is lighter and faster. Engineers want the design to be more friendly toward renewable energy. The 18.5m ferry will rely on electrical propulsion system powered by batteries.

There is no mention yet of how the ship will be charged. Common sense dictates charging the ship when it is not in use, the same way you charge an electric car or motorcycle. But that begs the question of how long a single charge would take. If the time frame is too long, keeping the ship out of service while it charges could make for a money-losing proposition.

One solution would be to power the ship with interchangeable batteries. Pull the ship into dock, switch out its batteries during the unloading and loading process, and send it on its way. Though somewhat challenging, such a system could work. As an alternative, the ship could be equipped with a photovoltaic or solar thermal system that could continuously charge batteries during operation, thus reducing down time for charging.

We don’t know for sure what the new ferry in New Zealand will look like. When it’s done though, it promises to be unique in a lot of ways. At the very core will be carbon fiber, a space age material that continues to transform everything from ship design to commercial air travel.

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