The Yara Birkeland is the world’s first autonomous and fully electric container ship. It will soon begin a two-year test period and commence commercial operations. It will begin full autonomous operation on a route off the coast of Norway. The craft is fully powered by a Leclanché high-energy lithium-ion battery system.

Jon Sletten, project owner, Yara Birkeland, said “Yara is constantly seeking opportunities to reduce its climate footprint and fulfil its main vision to responsibly feed the world. Embarking on a technically challenging project as Yara Birkeland together with our technology partner Kongsberg Maritime is, as such, a small endeavour in the large challenge we as one out of many industrial players are embarking on. A zero-emission vessel to bring our product from production and out to the markets show that it is possible to make a positive contribution to the required change in the release of climate gases. A saying from one of Yara’s founders back in early 19th century is “where there is a will, there is a way.” Battery technology from Leclanché provides us with a battery driven vessel charged with electricity from the green hydroelectric power. This is a willful step in a green direction and an encouragement for others to also invest in future technologies.” 

The ship’s energy supply is provided by a 6.7 MWh battery system. Emission-free and safe, it features integrated liquid cooling, ensuring optimum operating temperature. The Leclanché Marine Rack System (MRS) has a service life of at least 10 years and ensures optimum temperature control of the cells. Additionally, the MRS features a fire protection system designed and certified for marine requirements and state-of-the-art protection against overheating.

“We are very proud to be able to contribute to the success of this unique project. With our battery system for the Yara Birkeland, Leclanche contributes to lower greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 40.000 container truck road journeys per year, not to mention road safety improvements, noise pollution reduction and increased logistics efficiencies,” said Anil Srivastava, chief executive officer of Leclanché. “The annual operating cost savings in both fuel and crew, estimated at up to 90%, makes autonomous and battery powered ships viable in international trade. Combined with new emerging technologies and the integration of alternative green fuels, including clean hydrogen, we will continue opening new possibilities for our customers, the industry and the planet.”

The Yara Birkeland completed its maiden voyage to Oslo in mid-November. The craft then sailed to Porsgrunn, the southern Norwegian production site of Yara International, a fertiliser manufacturer, and the vessel owner.

The Yara Birkeland is approximately 80 meters long and 15 meters wide with a deadweight of 3,120 tonnes or 120 standard containers (TEU). Leclanché supplied the vessel with a 6.7 MWh battery system; the equivalent energy of 130 Tesla Model 3 batteries. Considered a “green vessel”, the electrically powered ship will operate at a service speed of approximately 6 knots, with a maximum speed of 13 knots.

Lithium-ion battery system

The battery system of the Yara Birkeland is manufactured in Switzerland and fitted with lithium-ion cells produced at Leclanché’s automated production facility in Willstätt, Germany. Making up the core of the battery system, the high energy density cells have a life cycle of 8,000 @ 80% DoD and can operate in temperature ranges from -20 to +55°C. This particular Leclanché Marine Rack System consists of 20 strings with 51 modules of 32 cells each, giving it a total of 32,640 cells. There is also a built-in redundancy made up of eight separate battery rooms. This makes it possible for the vessel to continue operations even if multiple strings are emptied or stop working.

Efficient protection against overheating is indispensable when it comes to battery systems for marine application. Leclanché specially developed the modular DNV-GL certified MRS to preent a fire on the open sea. Each battery string contains gas and smoke detectors in addition to redundant thermal monitoring and a cooling system to prevent overheating and thermal incidents. There is even a Fifi4Marine fire extinguishing system in place should a thermal incident occur despite all these precautions. The fire extinguishing system is based on environmentally friendly foam that cools and extinguishes quickly and effectively.

Zero emissions battery drive

The Yara Birkeland will be able to navigate on a completely autonomous basis once the test period is completed. The vessel will transport container products from Yara International’s production plant in Herøya to the port of Brevik. Yara International is pursuing a zero-emission strategy with its all-electric drive solution. Operation of the Yara Birkeland will displace approximately 40,000 truck journeys per year and the associated NOx and CO2 emissions. Noise and air pollution will also be reduced while in port and the batteries are charged automatically with electricity from renewable sources.

“Leclanché’s marine rack system provides 30% higher energy density and up to a 230% greater life cycle than competitive systems – in addition to its reputation for having the safest battery system design,” said Guillaume Clement, VP e-Marine, Leclanché. “Thanks to Yara, the maritime industry has entered a new era where sustainable shipping is demonstrated as a viable solution for a very large range of ships and businesses.” 

Leclanché and e-Marine

Leclanché is keenly focussed on sustainability as an important and serious component of its business and cultural commitment. The company makes an important contribution to the e-mobility industry and the global energy transition to sustainability with all its products  and sustainable production methodologies. Few European battery system suppliers outside of Leclanché have their own cell production facilities and the complete know-how to produce high-quality lithium-ion cells all the way from electrochemistry to battery management software and an array of battery systems. The systems are used in stationary energy storage systems, trains, buses, and ships and other places. Leclanché’s fastest growing business segment is currently the e-Marine sector. Battery systems have been delivered by the company for multiple ships with electric or hybrid propulsion systems and many more orders are on the way. Among the projects successfully completed is “Ellen,” a passenger and vehicle ferry. It is the longest range, all-electric ferry in daily operation and has been operating in the Danish Baltic Sea since 2019.