World’s first zero-particle ship sets sail in the Mediterranean

·4-min read
© La Méridionale / Maeva Joly

The French ferry company La Méridionale this week launched its new environmentally friendly vessel, the Piana. Its engines are equipped with particle filters to cut air pollution – an innovation considered a world first in maritime transport.

The company, which runs passenger and freight lines from Marseille in southern France to Corsica and Morocco says all four of Piana’s engines are equipped with filters which neutralise part of polluting emissions.

After the Caribbean, the Mediterranean is the most affected by pollution from heavy fuel oil used by these kinds of ships.

The filters, presented on Monday after three years of tests, capture 99 percent of sulphur oxides and eliminates 99.9 percent of fine and ultrafine particles, the most dangerous for human health.

No more smoke comes out of the Piana for its entire journey thanks to a solution already applied in many thermal power stations on land.

Sodium bicarbonate is injected at the engine outlet, reacting chemically on the particles present in the exhaust gases, thus 'desulphurising' them. Particles and heavy metals are then collected in filter recipients, known as "socks".

This innovation comes at a price: €15 million, 10 million paid by La Méridionale, and €4 million by the Southern Region. The last million comes from the State, through Ademe, the Environment and Energy Management Agency.

"It is very important to have long-term support, in order to be able to carry out these tests, finalise the solutions and make them effective", Benoît Dehaye, managing director of La Méridionale, told France Televisions.

Major global health issue

This summer, the black smoke from cruise ships, many in the port of Marseille, angered local residents, and even the mayor of the city Benoît Payan, who challenged the State and the International Maritime Organisation.

According to the United Nations, which marked International Day of Clean Air for blue skies on Wednesday, air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths each year worldwide.

The agency considers it to be the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally.

The annual economic impact of air pollution for France is around 100 billion euros, mainly in health expenditure, according to Damien Piga, innovation director of the regional air quality monitoring body Atmosud.

For Piga, the particle filter innovation on the Piana is a step forward, adding he had "never been aware of such projects", even through his collaborations in Europe and Asia.

"Until now to reduce the level of sulphur oxide in the fuel it was necessary either to have a less polluting fuel, or a 'scrubbing system' which consists of 'washing' the fumes with sea water," Piga told AFP.

The scrubbers, placed in the chimneys of ships, are disputed because most shipowners equipped with them opt for an open circuit, with discharge of pollutants at sea.

Optimism

The Piana is already compliant with the standards which will come into force in 2025, in particular on the content of sulfur in marine fuels which will be limited to 0.1 percent in the Mediterranean.

The president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, Renaud Muselier says the initiative by a small company could inspire the big passenger cruise ships.

"They will have no more passengers on board if they do not make this evolution," he says.

Dominique Lanfranchi, from the Coriscan environmental protection group Sentinella is optimistic about this latest invention.

"It is the proof that an industry can also work for the environment, when it has the will. La Méridionale is charting a virtuous path, we hope that all the companies will do the same".

When it comes to widening the measure to other companies, she’s not sure this will be easy.

"It seems difficult to impose anything on them. Whether they are ferries or cruise ships, most of the time, they are under a flag that is not the French flag," she told France Televisions, adding that if things don’t change "we can always protest and stop the ships docking in Corsican ports!"

Just last week, over 500 people signed a petition to regulate polluting cruise ships in Marseille.

Electric docks

"They have 'marinized' a land installation which has proven itself", activist Guillaume Picard told AFP. The ex-commander and chief mechanic is also part of the environmental collective "Stop cruises".

But he said he is concerned with the outcome of tons of residue produced by the new filter.

La Méridionale says the chemical company Solvay, which delivers the sodium bicarbonate, will recover the residue and bury it and in some cases recycle bicarbonate that has not reacted.

The company, owned by the STEF transport group, is also working to drastically reduce its nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which constitute significant air pollution, with the installation, on the "socks" of the filter, of a catalytic system, for truly "zero emission" ferries.

In other environmental efforts, La Méridionale has since 2016 connected all its ships electrically to Marseille port. This means engines can be switched off while the boats are docked, limiting pollution. The measure is set to be extended to all boats in Marseille by 2025.