Interview: Babcock’s Dr Jon Hall on innovations in marine propulsion

As part of a series of articles exploring the propulsion technologies that will shape the future of key transport sectors The Engineer spoke to Babcock’s Technology Managing Director Dr Jon Hall about his team’s work on marine propulsion technology

What propulsion innovations will help power your sector towards net zero?

Babcock is involved in a number of programmes that are supporting wider sustainability frameworks, such as the Government’s Road to Zero and the Clean Maritime Call.  Real innovation often happens when we work collaboratively and that’s what we are doing across our business.

In May we were announced as one of 10 companies to win funding as part of the Clean Maritime Call, a new initiative set up by the Maritime Research and Innovation UK (MarRI-UK) body. All these projects will play an important role in supporting the British maritime sector’s vision of zero-emission shipping and the UK Government’s Maritime 2050 strategy. Our project is to develop a test platform and an advanced power-energy management solution for zero emission marine propulsion systems – and we’re just about to start work on it!

Describe some of your organisations own key activities in this area

As a technology-led business we deliver critical, complex engineering services across defence, emergency services and civil nuclear markets in the UK and increasingly internationally.  Our latest project, the FC-BATShip (Fuel Cell Battery powered Ship) is in many ways breaking the boundaries. We are doing this in collaboration with Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) and our suppliers Fuel Cell Systems and Plug Power.

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What are the key obstacles and challenges to developments in this area?

As I head up Babcock’s Technology business, I’m acutely aware of the importance of skills and the changing landscape that technology, in particular digital technology is changing the skills we will need for the future. We need to ensure as a business we have a digitally savvy workforce that can fully understand and utilise the technology we’ll be working with, whether its digital twin or solutions using advanced data analysis.

Many of our assets also have decade-long lifecycles and if you’re working with a less mature or disruptive technology then that’s going to impact upon the systems and processes we’re working with now. Working out what those changes will look like across the lifecycle of an asset is going to be a real engineering challenge, and opportunity. That’s why we have already been doing extensive research with our academic partners at Cranfield University and University of Strathclyde, in the areas of through life engineering.

What is your vision for the long term future of propulsion in your sector?

As part of the Clean Maritime Plan targets, all new vessels being ordered for use in UK waters will need to be designed with zero emission propulsion capability by 2025 so there are some big targets.

marine propulsion
All UK vessels will need zero emission capability by 2025 Image: stock.adobe.com

So the longer term aims of the propulsion project we are developing (under the Clean Maritime Call) is to create something that has the potential to be significantly more energy efficient than current systems with lower operational costs, ultimately leading to cleaner seas. Advanced propulsion systems have an opportunity to be part of that longer term vision to create a cleaner industry but it is part of a wider one. Our approach is to collaborate with some of the best engineering and academic organisations, and together with support from industry groups like MaRI-UK and Government we can make a real difference. We’re doing this across our business with other innovation driven projects such as FASTBLADE. All of this combined, is what will make this a success, and that’s exciting.

Dr Jon Hall is managing director for technology at Babcock International Group