April 28, 2024

Yara Birkeland, two years on

Two years ago, Yara made history with the Christening of Yara Birkeland, the world’s first fully electric, autonomous, and zero-emission container ship. On the second anniversary of its Christening, find out how the ship has fared since then, its autonomous functions, the challenges embarking on an ambitious project of this nature, and what the future holds in store.

Yara Birkeland

Visit the Yara headquarters in Oslo, and you will be greeted by a beautiful scale model of the Yara Birkeland in the lobby. Yara Birkeland - named after one of the company’s co-founders, Kristian Birkeland - is the pride of the company. The vessel is projected to remove 40,000 diesel-powered truck journeys annually, consequently reducing NOx (nitrogen oxide) and CO2 emissions.

Yara Birkeland demonstrates Yara’s commitment towards climate neutrality throughdecarbonization and reduction of emissions within the agriculture, shipping, and energy industries. Furthermore, it reflects three of our core values: ambition, curiosity, and collaboration. 

The open-top container ship has a cargo capacity of 120 Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU) and deadweight of 3,200 tons. Two 900kW Azipull pods, and two 700kW Tunnel thrusters propel the ship to a maximum speed of 15 knots, off a battery capacity of 6.8 MWh. Since commencing commercial operations in spring of 2022, Yara Birkeland has completed a total of 175 voyages, transporting a total of 21,826 containers – and counting – on its Herøya to Brevik route. The 11 nautical miles voyage takes roughly about one hour. On average the ship sails two and a half times a week, transporting containers filled with premium fertilizers from Yara’s production facility in Porsgrunn to the deep-sea container harbour in Brevik. From there the products are shipped to markets globally, helping feed 200 million people.

Yara Birkeland
Yara Birkeland, photo credits Knut Brevik Andersen, Wilhelmsen Ship Service

Autonomous functions 

Yara Birkeland completed its first-fully autonomous voyage, under human supervision, from Yara Porsgrunn to a container terminal in Brevik in March 2023. However, owing to regulatory issues, the ship currently operates with a crew of three onboard who supervise and monitor the ship for safety reasons. 

The crew size will be reduced to two shortly, when the ship’s electrician will be moved to join other former crew members at the recently opened Horten Remote Operations Center where the ship will be monitored from. 

Knut Midtsian, Interface Manager for Yara Birkeland explains that the ship’s autonomous Auto-Docking and Auto-Crossing capabilities are now operational. “The ship can autonomously leave the quay at Yara’s Herøya facility, sail to Brevik, and dock at the unloading quay while the navigator onboard is overlooking the voyage. Similarly on the return trip to Herøya, the ship autonomously sails to and docks at its dedicated Birkeland quay” he says. Yara Birkeland is not completely autonomous yet, mooring of the ship is still done manually, with tests are underway on the ship’s robotic mooring arms. 

Tests will soon start on the Yara Birkeland’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) situational awareness system. The AI system controls how the ship navigates, based on decisions it makes on its surroundings, other ships, obstacles, or weather changes.

Birkeland ship

Regulatory and technical doldrums 

The vessel was initially slated to finish a two-year autonomy trial period by the end of 2024. This will culminate in the certification of autonomous operations. The trial period is still ongoing, with expectations that the ship will be close to completing the trial by early 2026. “Development of robust technical solutions has taken longer than expected. The regulatory aspects are also challenging, as no regulations exist,” explains Knut. 

Knut says alignment between technology development and authorities has had an impact on the project’s progress, and that the slow pace of development relative to “off the shelf” projects can at times be frustrating. He points out that the main challenges that Yara Birkeland has faced in its development were mainly around the development of new technologies and satisfying regulators. “For such innovative projects, the technical solutions come first and then the robustness and reliability of the new solutions need to be presented and documented to the authorities before you can get approval that they meet regulatory requirements.” 

“Overall, it has been, and is an interesting project,” adds Knut. 

‘Steady she goes’ 

Jon Sletten, Senior Advisor, Yara Major Projects has been involved in the Yara Birkeland project since before the vessel was built.  Yara Birkeland is benefitting the environment beyond reducing CO2 emissions. By removing trucks from the roads in the densely populated areas in Grenland, she helps reducing traffic, noise, and dust.”  

Jon explains that while the payback period of this investment is very long, Yara is saving money for every container it transports with the ship. The announcement of the ship also garnered the company a lot of publicity. “It was and is fantastic, much more than what we could have expected. It is difficult to translate the positive publicity into money,” he says, adding that he believes it compensates for the project’s long payback period.

Jon says that while the Yara Birkeland is not fully up to speed yet, the Yara Technology and Projects (YTP) team is working to remove bottlenecks. YTP Porsgrunn, he explains, has an overview of all issues and has steadily brought the project forward. “I am proud that Yara Birkeland is in operation, and I am proud of YTP Porsgrunn. We are not finished, but steady she goes,” says Jon.

On the horizon 

Beyond the Yara Birkeland, Yara is also actively investing in another way to decarbonize how we transport our fertilizer. Yara Clean Ammonia, North Sea Container Line, and Yara International last year announced the Yara Eyde, the world’s first clean ammonia-powered container ship. The 1,400 TEU ship is expected to be delivered in 2026 and is set to make history by sailing emission-free between Norway and Germany.

Yara Eyde illustration