Blog August 29, 2019

Why composite tank containers point the way to a greener future

By Nicola Byers

As I write this blog Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old environmental campaigner, is making her way to New York to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September. Instead of flying, she is making the journey on a high speed 60-foot (18 metre) sailboat called Malizia II.

Malizia II was built to compete in the 2016-2017 round-the-world Vendée Globe race. The high-tech vessel generates electricity through solar panels and underwater turbines. It is made of composite materials to reduce weight and ensure that it can withstand extreme weather. Composite materials have been used because they provide the right balance between weight, strength and durability.

What is true for yachts is also true for tank containers, where the benefits of using composite materials are becoming increasingly apparent. A composite tank container is lighter, greener and cheaper to operate and, as environmental issues grow in importance, they will form an important part of the way in which our industry can become greener.

The benefits of composites

This blog first covered composite tank containers in March 2016. That post celebrated a rare innovation in an industry that can sometimes be conservative. Since then, further developments have made the benefits of this technology even clearer.

Dutch company Tankwell is one of the pioneers in this area. Their method involves making the tank container in one filament winding step, rather than adding caps onto a core. This means the wall thickness is lower and the external frame is included in the overall design. They can carry almost all the same substances as metallic containers – including chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide and ammonium hydroxide. Composites also have some important advantages that fit into three groups – weight, thermal performance and cleaning.

A Tankwell swop body tank container has a 31,000 litres capacity and weighs only 2,200kg, allowing for approximately 2 metric tons more product to be transported. There is a 25% to 40% weight reduction compared with ordinary tank containers. Added to this, when compared with metallic containers, composites offer a 40% improvement in thermal performance. Finally, the smooth inside means it is easier to clean, requiring less scrubbing and rinsing than stainless steel units.

The benefits to both the environment and the bottom line are clear: fewer journeys; less risk; less energy expended heating or cooling the product; and fewer cleaning and processing residues. In terms of cost, the ability to carry that much more product results in freight costs dropping by 5% to 10%, as well as saving on loading and unloading operations. While buying a composite container in the first place is estimated to be 15% to 20% more expensive than stainless steel, composite tank containers can pay back on this investment over two to three years.

Time for regulatory approval

Since Tankwell launched its first model in 2015, a series of service providers have signed up with different manufacturers. Den Hartogh Logistics was an early adopter and recently Eurotainer took the plunge, selecting Australian firm Omni tanker to supply them with new 20-foot tanks, highlighting their ability to “exceptional chemical resistance and low tare weight”.

The Russians are also moving forward in this area. In 2016 we covered the approval given to composite containers developed by UralVagonZavod and Uralcryomsh. Since then, further progress has been made. Pilot operations of a tank container made of fibre reinforced plastic have covered over 40,000 km and transported more than 300 tonnes of acid liquids. Russian manufacturers are ready, but are waiting for regulatory approval.

Regulatory approval remains a global obstacle. Composite tank containers have already and verified to ADR/RID/CSC/IMO-4 after extensive tests, which means they can be used to load dangerous goods on shortsea routes. They have also passed a number of EU food safety tests. But the fact that they cannot be used on the long haul sea routes has limited take up. Until that approval is given, they will remain a niche option – Tankwell has sold over 350 composites since 2015, though it has recently opened new premises to increase its manufacturing capacity.

Looking back to the 2016 blog, it is interesting how at that time we noted, but did not focus on, the environmental benefits of composites. In 2019, with talk of a climate emergency and with Greta Thunberg at the heart of a movement to focus more on this issue, these benefits are coming into sharper focus. It is important that we don’t have to wait a further three years for these innovative, efficient and green tank containers to be approved for long haul sea transport. Intermodal transport is inherently environmentally friendly, in that it offers shippers the option to transport bulk materials using ships and rail, using road only for the final mile. But as an industry we need to go further and faster to show how we can support a greener future for logistics.