Thursday, June 27, 2013


Worker on Badger fantail assists 
truck's driver by manipulating
rear unit with remot
e to 
guide turbine tower section.
Manitowoc to Ludington, Boyne City, Petosky and  home...

This past weekend, Island dentist Tom Wilson and I took what is becoming our annual weekend jaunt to Michigan.  We decided rather than touring the Upper Peninsula, this might be a good time to ride the mighty SS Badger across the lake.

Having written about the Badger in this blog column earlier this spring, and knowing her days could be numbered regarding its coal-fired steam engine propulsion, this would be one of those "do it now before it's too late" experiences.

We were not disappointed, in part because of the company we met along the way, and also the treatment while on board that allowed us to see normally off-limits areas of the vessel, courtesy of Captain Jeffery Curtis.

A new direction to engineer the Badger's management of coal ash by-product while underway came as a complete surprise to me when I asked Captain Curtis about the Badger's future.

With its current two-year EPA permit to continue operations using traditional coal-fired boilers, the practice of sluicing coal ash by-product overboard as the ship is underway must be remedied.  Dumping anything "foreign" into lake waters goes against most parameters (although major cities are exempted from dumping millions of gallons of sewage annually).  Ash dumping has been a major contention of Badger detractors, even though the coal ash analysis results have proven them to be largely inert and quite harmless to the environment.  Nevertheless, ship management practices, in order to continue operations into the future, will require a new and different solution acceptable to EPA discharge mandates within that 2-year time frame.  Like others, I had assumed the Badger's new direction might be toward the use of natural gas, rather than coal.  Natural gas, I had believed, would allow the continued use the existing steam plant machinery with small modifications.

Mixed traffic on the Badger's main vehicle deck ranged
from Harley Davidsons to 100-ft.+ tractor trailer unite.
This revelation came, however, when we were told by the Badger's captain that onboard containment of the coal ash was the route currently being explored.  This would mean storage of perhaps several tons of ash from a day's running time, until the vessel moored in the evening and the ash could be off-loaded to waiting trucks or tankers.  The ashes are hot when discharged from the fire box and need to be cooled, stored, and then removed by pumps or an enclosed conveyor from the ship.

We began to see the sense in doing it this way because a minimum of re-engineering would need to be done to the power plant itself.  Coast Guard approvals for such a solution are another matter, but those approvals might more easily be obtained than pursuit of new and more flammable natural gas fuel.  Natural gas has great benefits as a clean and relatively cheap fuel, but regulatory approval still seems a distance in the future.  (See attached footnote regarding natural gas future aboard U. S. domestic shipping.)

Away we go

We were excited to board the Badger, along with Ed Graf of Washington Island whom we coincidentally met in the ticket office lobby after we drove up to the Manitowoc queue.   Besides autos and motorcycles, tower sections for wind turbines that were mounted on long, extended semi trailers waited to be backed on.   These units had an extra set of independently operated steering axles to support and guide the over-sized turbine loads.

Capt. Jeffery Curtis and Ed Graf,
 with Tom Wilson, in engine room.
Of course, that is the beauty of using the Badger service as a short-cut across the lake.  Those turbine tower pieces were manufactured just a few blocks up the street, at the old Mirro Aluminum plant, and they're so big they are nearly impossible to maneuver through or around Chicago.  The Badger, however, loads them effortlessly.  We read where approximately 300 towers are being shipped to a lower Michigan wind farm via the Badger.  It makes a great deal of sense to keep such a ship operating when there is such a variety of vehicles and customer demand for midwest cross-lake shipping.  Loading those trucks took a few extra minutes, but when unloading at Ludington, drivers pulled their rigs off the vessel with ease along with other traffic.

Our ferry trip went smoothly and quickly, and half-way across, rain clouds were replaced by sunshine.   We then drove north to Boyne City to my youngest son Thor's home where we spent two evenings.  Saturday morning we attended the Bay Harbor auto and boat show.  I'm not an expert in such events, but the cars and boats displayed were magnificent, high-end examples of manufacturing and restoration.

Thor inspects Morgan trunk detail at Bay Harbor auto show.

One main reason for attending, other than the anticipated pleasure it would bring to our eyes, was the trunk Thor built through the Van Dam Woodcraft boat shop, then fitted into the rear lid by an area custom auto shop.  After Thor finished the woodworking part of this trunk, Louis Vuitton fabric was added for contrast.  We didn't stay long enough to observe the awarding of prizes, but it appeared the judges were going to have a difficult time choosing a top model when each and every entry was so beautifully maintained, restored and polished to the extreme.

Slot in center of trunk has red LED connected to brakes.
That was the essence of our weekend getaway.  Our return took us over the Mackinac bridge into the U. P.   Despite the sometimes gloomy weather pattern that had hung like a blanket at times over upper Lake Michigan, we're now energized for what the rest of our summer may bring.

Notes on Natural Gas as a commercial vessel fuel:

Almost every maritime magazine today has an article or a news item related to impending vessel conversions to natural gas as a propulsion fuel.

For years, as we understand it, Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) carriers have used the boil-off natural gas from their storage tanks to help fuel their engines as they cross the oceans.  European vessels seem to be somewhat ahead of U. S. domestic vessels in the application of natural gas as ship fuel, but one definite advantage that may help U. S. shippers over time is the increasing supply and distribution of relatively cheap, clean natural gas that is now coming on line.

The Pacific Maritime magazine recently ran a column by Louis Lemos ( June 2013):  Using LNG as Fuel.  Lemos wrote about both the positives and the limitations of LNG.  Lemos, now retired, has extensive credentials, including the British Merchant Navy and the U. S. Merchant Marine as a Chief Engineer, U. S. Navy certified Ship Superintendent, and as a Commissioned Inspector of Boilers and Pressure Vessels.

The tanks that hold the liquid gas, Lemos states, must be heavily insulated to maintain a constant temperature of minus 165 Celsius.  This is to "not only preserve the ultra-low temperature of the LNG tanks, but also to protect the ship structures from the effects of cryogenic temperatures of the LNG."  He then estimates that required ship storage space for such tanks could be as much as 250 percent greater than that required for tanks of corresponding diesel fuel capacity.

Such shipboard tanks are designed and regulated as pressure vessels, with construction rules similar to those of steam boilers and compressed air storage tanks.   Codes are being rewritten today to address such storage and safe shipboard practice by Class Societies, quasi-government bodies that help administer and regulate vessel standards, with guidelines often based on international agreements.  The Class Societies have been expending time and resources for research and technical solutions, and for cost effective methods to improve the safety and efficiency of LNG-powered main propulsion machinery, according to Lemos.

This article contains much more information on LNG applications aboard vessels, and it shows that the possibilities are within reach, but that we're not yet there.  The lack of a ready LNG solution today, along with perhaps staggering refit costs, may have convinced the Badger's management to look to a more expeditious and realistic solution.  -  Dick Purinton

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