Glimpses of the future

‘Manchester Challenge’ was the first British cellular container ship
‘Manchester Challenge’ was the first British cellular container ship
The machinery control room of the ‘Elbe Express’
The machinery control room of the ‘Elbe Express’

Reading the December 1968 issue of The Motor Ship, so much seems to belong to a later period that I had to look twice to see that I had the right date, writes Bill Thomson.

Images of an all-cellular Hapag-Lloyd Transatlantic container ship, with profile distinctly similar to modern vessels for one thing, and talk about gas tankers (LNG as well as LPG) with reciprocating diesel engines rather than steam turbines for another. After all, it is only relatively recently that major engine designers have perfected the means of running large two-stroke engines on low flashpoint fuels like LPG.

Hapag Lloyd’s Elbe Express, built by Blohm & Voss, and the second of a four-ship series, was said to be of an advanced design based on research carried out by the owners and builders. At 171m long, and with capacity for 700 20ft ISO containers, she would today be regarded as little more than a feeder vessel, but 50 years ago was truly state-of-the-art in intercontinental cargo liner operation. As well as the now-ubiquitous ISO containers, in both 20ft and 40ft lengths, she was equipped to carry American-standard 8ft 6in high boxes below decks. Powered by a MAN K9Z 78/115E engine of 15,750 bhp MCR, she was intended to run fully loaded at 13,640 bhp, sufficient for a speed of 20 knots.

Elbe Express was not the only modern-style container ship examined in 1968. The same issue reported on Manchester Challenge, the first British deep-sea container ship, built for service between Manchester’s newly-equipped container port, via the Manchester Ship Canal and across the Atlantic to Montreal. With capacity of 500 TEU (in today’s measurements) she was smaller than the Hapag Lloyd quartet, but still a significant vessel. Propulsion choice, though, was vastly different – a single CP propeller driven by a pair of Crossley-Pielstick 18 cylinder PC2V medium speed engines, with combined output of 16,380 bhp. She was built with five cargo holds, to carry 452 containers, with another 50 carried, one tier high, on the hatch covers.


As far as the gas-fuelled engines were concerned, an editorial article considered the “prospects for diesel-engined methane tankers”. Noting that all LNG carriers in service were powered by steam turbines, using boil-off gas to fuel the boilers, one French gas tanker in build had been ordered with diesel machinery. The reason was that as the ship was being equipped to carry LPG as well as LNG, it was provided with reliquefaction plant allowing the boil-off gas to be returned to the cargo tanks. As several engine builders had developed four-stroke engines capable of running on methane gas in land-based operation, our predecessors considered it a distinct possibility that a dual-fuel LNG carrier could be ordered in the future. Taking this a stage further, the article wondered if it might ever be possible to find a way of operating LPG carriers on boil-off gas as well as diesel fuel. The poor anti-knock characteristics of propane, butane and similar petroleum gases makes them unsuitable for high-compression diesel engines, but the rate of ordering of LPG carriers “must surely present a worthy challenge to the diesel engine designers.”

Only now, 50 years on, does this particular challenge appear to have been met.

Finally, it is hard to imagine that a large diesel engine could be regarded as ‘fashionable’. It seemed that the Doxford engine had fallen out of favour after several crankshaft failures. But, after the improvements in the P-type and J-type engines, the Doxford design had seem a surge in new orders, bringing the opposed-piston two-stroke back into ‘fashion’ in the industry.


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