Lighter Containers, Heavy Results
Composite shipping containers

Stephen Wood pitches his team’s business proposal to judges at Energy YES 2014.

Project: Composite shipping containers
School: University of Bath
Location: Claverton Down, Bath, England
Project Leader: Heather Parker

A team of five graduate students at the University of Bath won first prize in the Energy Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (Energy YES) for their concept of using a lightweight composite material to replace heavy steel in walls of shipping containers. The team represented the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies at Bath under the name Absol Composites. Its members were Heather Parker, Emily Hayward, Stephen Wood, Will Mahy and Jon Wagner.

Energy YES is a three-day British business competition organized by The University of Nottingham’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGI) and the Network of Energy Doctoral Training Centres that aims to develop the entrepreneurial skills of energy research Ph.D. students and help solve challenges in the energy industry. This year’s competition brought together 50 researchers from 13 centers at 16 universities in the United Kingdom. Teams participated in a workshop to develop business plans for their energy sector-specific idea, then pitched their plans to a panel of judges, similar to the television show “Shark Tank.” As winners, Absol Composites received £1,000 (approximately $1,700) and the opportunity to bring its idea to Engineering YES, a similar competition that focuses on broader areas of research.

Heather Parker, Absol Composites’ student leader, described their concept as a theoretical process involving pre-fabricating flexible sheets of woven Kevlar-like fibers in an epoxy resin, which could be wrapped around a steel frame skeleton and cured in situ. “We anticipated that this would lead to a considerable reduction in manufacturing costs in comparison to conventional composites, which would make our process cost competitive with traditional steel container manufacturing,” Parker says. “In addition, the use of the existing container steel frames would make our process less disruptive than moving to 100 percent composite containers, thereby allowing an easier transition from steel to composite containers.”

The team’s concept was sparked after reading a March 2014 article in The Economist (“Boxing Clever”) that discusses how CFRP containers could help ease global shipping costs. A lighter container could make a big difference in shipping costs; 12 percent of the weight of a fully loaded steel shipping container is the container itself. After Parker and the team began their research, they found how much composites could really do to reduce the costs and carbon footprint of shipping. “Shipping companies are currently facing serious cost pressures, and a significant cost to them is their fuel usage,” says Parker. “One way of relieving some of this pressure would be to save fuel by using lighter containers. However, these still need to meet stringent ISO standards, which makes composites a particularly suitable steel replacement.”

The team found various advantages to using composite containers, including reducing fuel consumption, greater resistance to corrosion and security benefits, such as the potential to use “soft” X-rays at customs, rather than expensive, high-energy radiation. “The current level of composite development appeared to be approaching a level whereby [composites] might soon be commercially viable for use in [shipping] applications,” Parker notes.