The world’s first all-electric, autonomous cargo ship launched in Norway this week. The Yara Birkeland made a short, crewed trip to the capital of Oslo as part of its unveiling, with work to now begin on certifying it as an autonomous container vessel ahead of commencing commercial operations.

As a joint venture between chemical production firm Yara and maritime technology company Kongsberg, the Yara Birkeland was announced back in 2017 as the world’s first all-electric and autonomous container ship.

The plan is to use the ship to ferry chemicals and fertiliser from Yara’s production plant in Prosgrunn to nearby towns, making significant reductions in NOx and CO2 emissions by negating the need for diesel-powered truck transport.

The 80m-long vessel is powered by a 6.8-mWh battery pack and can carry up to 3,200 tons at a maximum speed of 28 km/h.

Yara is looking at the potential to utilise stocks of ammonia used in its fertiliser production to develop a zero-carbon fuel source. “Renewable energy was our starting point in 1905, now, ammonia can bring us back to our roots,” says Magnus Krogh Ankarstrand, CEO of Yara Clean Ammonia. “Our large shipping network and existing infrastructure means that ammonia has the potential to become the leading fuel for long-distance shipping globally,”

The Yara Birkeland’s maiden voyage saw it travel from the town of Horten to Oslo, a journey of around 70 km. The inaugural voyage was attended by government officials including Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre.

“We are proud to be able to showcase the world’s first fully electric and self-propelled container ship,” says Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of Yara. “It will cut 1,000 tonnes of CO2 and replace 40,000 trips by diesel-powered trucks a year.”

With its first voyage behind it, the Yara Birkeland will commence commercial operations in 2022, while a two-year testing period will take place alongside designed to certify it as an autonomous vehicle. Technology company Kongsberg will be responsible for integrating the sensors and other systems for autonomous navigation, with the pathway to full autonomy to also include a phase of remote operation.

“Yara Birkeland will transport mineral fertiliser between Porsgrunn and Brevik and will contribute to significant emission cuts during transport,” says Holsether. “This is an excellent example of green transition in practice, and we hope this ship will be the start of a new type of emission-free container ships. There are a lot of places in the world with congested roads that will benefit from a high-tech solution like this.”