Watch this TED talk to get up to speed on green ammonia and shipping

Canary Media reporter Maria Gallucci explains how ammonia made from renewable electricity could help clean up the biggest, dirtiest cargo ships.

A woman with dark hair and wearing a lavender jacket stands in front of a map of the world's ocean cargo routes
Canary Media reporter Maria Gallucci talks clean fuels and dirty ships at the TED conference in Monterey, California on August 2, 2021. (Bret Hartman/TED)
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A TED talk is meant to be like an open door, one that draws the audience’s attention to a novel or intriguing idea and invites them to the threshold. Viewers or listeners can then decide whether to step inside and learn more about the topic on their own. At least that’s how the conference organizers explained it to me as I wrote, scrapped, then rewrote my TED talk in the spring and summer of 2021

My challenge was twofold. One, explain why the shipping industry — the linchpin of the modern global economy — is betting that green” ammonia can help curb greenhouse gas emissions from its biggest, dirtiest cargo ships. Two, do so without making people’s eyes glaze over. 

I delivered the talk last August in California at TEDMonterey 2021: The Case for Optimism, and it’s now available online. Watch here and, if your curiosity is piqued, keep reading below.

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My TED talk received a strong reception from the seals and sea lions basking in Monterey’s breathtaking bay; they flopped and stretched as I ran my lines many times on the walking paths behind the convention center.

The eight-minute monologue draws on my earlier reporting, including a feature story in the March 2021 edition of IEEE Spectrum magazine. That piece deeply explores the technical, policy and economic challenges involved with both producing ammonia from renewable electricity and using it to fuel giant oceangoing vessels. More recently for Canary Media, I wrote about a startup that’s developing an ammonia-driven power system for ships and is backed by Amazon, as part of the e-commerce giant’s efforts to reduce supply-chain emissions.

The global shipping industry accounts for roughly 3 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, a number that’s expected to soar if ships keep burning dirty diesel fuels. In 2021, shipping-related emissions rose by 4.9 percent over the previous year amid a surge in seaborne trade. However, as I mentioned in the talk, ammonia is far from the only potential way to reduce the industry’s environmental impact. 

Ferries and offshore service vessels are increasingly using battery power to zip between destinations, and hydrogen fuel-cell ships are already hitting the water. Shipping giant Maersk thinks methanol made with renewable electricity or biomass could help reduce container ship emissions in the near term. Wind-assisted propulsion devices are quickly catching on, with towing kites and spinning rotor sails all set to appear on cargo vessels during the course of 2022, helping to trim ships’ fuel use.

Some ships are fully wind-powered, as I also noted. I sailed on one such vessel (and heaved over the side of it) as the schooner carried coffee and cardamom in the Caribbean Sea. Other old-fashioned sailing ships are serving as floating wine cellars, and they might soon export U.S. barley to Costa Rica’s craft breweries.

Ammonia-powered ships are still in earlier stages of development, though the first vessels to use NH3 as fuel might be just around the corner. When that day comes, I’ll pop an anti-nausea pill, climb on board and keep reporting on cargo shipping’s clean energy transformation.

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Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.