The transition to sustainable shipping

Sustainable mobility

In collaboration with the shipping industry, knowledge institutions, and the government, we are shaping the energy transition for the Dutch maritime sector. We have translated the agreements of the UN International Maritime Organisation into the national Green Deal on Maritime, Inland Shipping, and Ports.

In concrete terms, this means a 40% reduction in CO2 per ship by 2030 and a 50% reduction for all shipping worldwide by 2050. To achieve this, we are working on three levels to make shipping more sustainable:

Governance and monitoring

How exactly is the Dutch maritime sector structured? What barriers do we need to remove before we can implement sustainable technologies? Are there additional conditions for a successful energy transition, such as policy measures or financial incentives? And how can the sector comply with the Green Deal? We answer these questions with governance and monitoring.

Transition plan needed

Technological logistics solutions such as circular shipping, smart logistics, ship power systems, and alternative energy carriers are great, but they won’t get off the ground without the right preconditions. There must be a transition plan: where are we now as a sector? Where are we heading? And how do we shape this process? We help to work out the issue with strategic analysis.

Closing the business case

The big picture of a 50% CO2 reduction for all shipping traffic worldwide by 2050 must be worked out into a realistic target with intermediate steps. The shipyards, the ship owners, but especially the government, are responsible for truly enabling the transition to a sustainable sector, for example, with subsidies for fuels or technology development. Or through other investments that close the business case.

Elaborate analysis

With the Green Deal on Maritime, Inland Shipping, and Ports, we have set a very clear goal for the period from 2020 to 2030 and beyond. In collaboration with all relevant parties, we are now analysing the type of vessels and the entire system surrounding them at the vessel level. We will develop this further in the next five years.

Forming policies

We also identify the actual emissions. This, in turn, is the basis on which we work to shape the transition. So, for all the ships that sail around and all the associated systems, we measure what the actual emissions are and where they are. This enables the formation of effective policies in the location with the most emissions. That is where you have the opportunity to do the most about it.

1. At the system level: how can we optimise the entire logistics system, including through policy interventions?

Circular shipping

Where do raw materials and building materials in the maritime sector come from? And how can we reuse them during or at the end of the life cycle? With research into the circular design, construction, and recycling of ships and maritime installations, we are raising awareness of circularity in the maritime sector, in order to reduce the sector's carbon footprint.

Smart logistics

The aim of smart logistics in the maritime sector is to make only those transport movements that are useful. This involves optimising the necessary logistical movements of products, and analysing the infrastructure required.

Mapping out the entire logistics chain

Ships often sail back and forth with half-empty or completely empty containers, for example, because transport has not yet been coordinated or because it is practical. Moreover, there are many lessons to be learned in terms of multimodal coordination, in which cargo is transferred on to trains or lorries. In our research, we map out the entire logistics chain, from the cargo ship in China to the courier van that delivers your order to your doorstep.

Smart software

Maritime transport can be optimised with smart software that coordinates the process between port and ship. Nowadays, a ship often heads for port as quickly as possible. It then sails very slowly for half a day and then enters the port. The captain doesn’t always know when the ship will be allowed to enter. By coordinating this better, you can already achieve a great deal of energy reduction without having to make major adjustments to the ship.

Global bunker infrastructure

Another solution is a global bunker infrastructure for various fuels. If you want to bring about energy transition throughout the logistics chain, you can’t start offering hydrogen for ships, cars, and lorries in a single port. You have to see the big picture and coordinate with the ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, and so on.

2. At the vessel level: how can we make the current fleet more sustainable and build more sustainable ships in the near future?

Analysis of the ship or system

We help to compare how green or circular a ship or system is, so that you can attach an energy label to it, just like with household appliances. Simply put, the researchers cut up the ship into sections. The steel structure, the wood, insulation material, the engine, the furniture, and so on. We then research the origin of each component and what that means for the carbon footprint. Finally, we examine where improvements can be made, by comparing the outcome to other ships if necessary.

Correct and objective assessment

Much information about the components is known, but much is not. In the case of marble or a composite on board a luxury yacht, the real impact is sometimes not yet mapped out. Our knowledge and insights enable us to make a correct and objective assessment. This objective and expert role also comes in handy when making comparisons and assigning an energy label.

Component integration

The transition to sustainable ship power systems requires that attention be paid to both system design and component integration. We develop solutions for, for example, CO2 capture and CO2 storage and the reduction of nitrogen emissions. We also study the effects of alternative or blended fuels. Finally, we focus on components of new propulsion systems, such as fuel cells and batteries.

Newly built ships

The sector also involves newly built ships. These ships have to deal with future uncertainty: where is this going? There is a need for a propulsion concept that will last at least 15 years in a future in which the necessary demands will also be made. There is a lot of uncertainty in that. We can remove that uncertainty through our road transport expertise, among other things.

3. At the power train level: what is the potential of alternative sustainable energy carriers?

Alternative energy carriers

Sustainable biological and synthetic energy carriers are essential for the reduction of emissions. To determine the potential of alternative energy carriers for the maritime sector, we are researching alternative fuels such as hydrogen, methanol, ammonia, liquid natural gas (LNG), and electricity.

Choosing the right energy carrier

Which energy carrier or which composition of energy carriers is the future depends first and foremost on the operational profile of the ship. For example, is it an inland vessel or a seagoing vessel? In addition, you have to look carefully where you apply specific energy carriers. Hydrogen, for example, is a very interesting energy carrier, but the volume you need compared to diesel is much larger. For an inland vessel that can bunker in Rotterdam and Germany, volume is a smaller problem. But if you have to fill up a ship from Shanghai with hydrogen, there will be no room left to transport goods.

Methanol, ammonia, and LNG

In addition to hydrogen, we are also studying other energy carriers, with a focus on methanol, ammonia, and LNG. To implement an energy carrier, you have to strike a careful balance. What impact does a particular fuel have on the power train and is it possible to retrofit the ship? This means that a new engine is installed or that the engine is modified. Or consider, for example, the integration on board: how much space does the fuel take up and what about safety? And finally, consider operational aspects, such as costs.


We also focus on the origin of energy carriers. Blending biofuels can reduce the carbon footprint in the short term, but, unfortunately, biofuels are not the full answer. Depending on their origin, they also have a significant undesirable impact on, for example, nature.


We are working on the electrification of the chemical industry with the VoltaChem innovation programme. Various applications such as peak shaving, sailing on battery packs, and shore power connections also offer a great opportunity to reduce emissions. We carry out extensive research into the integration of battery packs based on energy consumption, and the estimation and optimisation of battery life.


Existing ships have to be adapted to the stricter emission regimes. They need to be retrofitted. This means that a new engine is installed or that the engine is modified. We work mainly on 'after treatment', capturing CO2, for example. We are already implementing this concept on a large scale for power plants. Now the challenge is to translate it into a floating, moving, and smaller concept.