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Explore the North Sea in a climate-friendly way

The scientists at the Bremerhaven Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) will receive a new, environmentally friendly research ship. Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger christened the "Uthorn" in Berne, Lower Saxony. The 35 meter long newbuild, costing around 15 million euros, is the first German seagoing vessel to be fitted with a particularly low-emission methanol drive. The methanol should be "green", i.e. obtained with the help of renewable energies.

Sustainable exploration of the North Sea

"As a fuel, methanol has so far been an experiment," said Stark-Watzinger. "That's why today it is such an important step on the way to clean shipping." AWI director Antje Boetius therefore spoke of a "milestone towards a sustainable infrastructure for marine research".

According to AWI, the "Uthorn" also saves energy when heating and cooling. A water-to-water heat pump is used on board a ship for the first time. It only requires a fifth of the energy that a conventional boiler uses.

Researchers want to use the "Uthorn" to travel across the North Sea and investigate how the sea has changed. In doing so, they repeatedly record the physical, chemical and biological condition of the sea at the same points. According to the AWI, this is how valuable series of measurements are created, which the researchers can use to detect the smallest changes in the environment. In addition to a large working deck with dry and wet laboratories, the ship also has two crane booms for trawl nets and water scoops, a multi-frequency fishery echo sounder for tracking down and identifying schools of fish.

Investigate the effects of climate change

"We can do research in wind farms or survey the seabed," said AWI Deputy Director Karen Wiltshire about the multi-function ship. With the help of the cutter, one will find out, for example, whether the German Bight is recovering from the pollutant inputs of the 1970s and 1980s, according to Wiltshire. It will also be seen whether damaged seabed is regenerating and the effects of climate change will also be examined. The "Uthorn", which was named after a small island next to Sylt, is also used to train marine biologists.

According to the AWI, the "Uthorn" is powered by two electric traction motors. The energy for these is provided by two combustion engines that are powered by methanol instead of marine diesel. No soot particles got into the air – unlike when burning petrol, diesel and heavy oil. Because methanol only has about half the energy density of diesel, the "Uthorn" was equipped with significantly larger tanks than its predecessor. Pure electric propulsion, however, would have required huge batteries weighing dozens of tons – making the ship twice as big.

Hydrogen obtained with wind energy

It has not yet been finally clarified where the green methanol to operate the ship will come from. The Laeisz shipping company, which operates the ship on behalf of the AWI, is currently in talks with two possible suppliers, said Henning Westphal from Laeisz. The AWI, a Helmholtz center for polar and marine research, is also planning to build a pilot plant for the production of green methanol in Bremerhaven. This means that in the future, the sustainable fuel could be produced in part right on our doorstep.

Green methanol, a nearly carbon-neutral fuel, is created when the energy to produce it comes from renewable sources. For this purpose, hydrogen is produced with the help of wind energy, which reacts with CO2 to form methanol. The CO2 can come from a sewage treatment plant, for example.

According to AWI, the predecessor ship, the old "Uthorn", consumed an average of 76 tons of diesel oil per year. This corresponds to CO2 emissions of around 243 tons. For comparison: every German produces an average of eleven tons of CO2. After two years of construction, the new ship is to be handed over to the marine researchers in December.

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