A huge robotic arm wielding a jet of water powerful enough to cut through steel springs into action.
He is destroying the hull of a large ship. The structure, which resisted the force of the sea for decades, easily gives way to the sharp jet. In a short time, the robot cuts a large rectangle of steel.
With the task completed, the machine silently moves on to the next section.
“You can have robots starting at the bow and stern, and two points in between, and working towards each other,” says Bryce Lawrence, director of operations at Leviathan. The company, based in Germany, intends to use a team of robots to dismantle huge ships so that the steel can be recycled.
The shipbreaking industry is currently one of the dirtiest and most exploitative in the world.
When giant ships retire from years of transporting cargo such as consumer goods or oil between continents, they often end up on a heavily polluted beach somewhere in South Asia. There, workers use fossil fuel-powered torches to carefully dismantle the ships. Protective clothing is scarce. Fatalities are not.
Contaminants, including heavy metals, are often washed out to sea from these beaches. Workers and local communities are often exposed to hazardous materials, including asbestos. Over the next decade, 15,000 ships will need recycling — more than double the volume of the last decade, estimates Bimco, the Baltic and International Maritime Council.
Leviathan and other companies try to find ways to do this work much cleaner and safer. Still, there is no guarantee that they will be able to compete with the extremely cheap shipyards in South Asia.
“Compared to traditional ship recycling, we are very, very low carbon,” says Lawrence as he explains how the machinery at Leviathan’s facility in Stralsund on Germany’s Baltic coast will be powered by electricity rather than on-site fossil fuels. , and that the recovered steel will be transported to factories across Europe on electric trains. Commercial operations are expected to begin in the coming months, he adds.
The company’s system is a mix of established technologies. The robotic arms are the type that work in car factories, for example, and the water jet is manufactured by ANT AG, another German company.
This device explodes a mixture of water and sand at high pressures — a technology so precise that it is used by bomb disposal experts to cut bomb fuses.
“Someone has to get close to the bomb, activate the manipulation system,” says Till Weber, general manager of ANT AG, “and then go as far away as possible.” Fortunately, in such situations the jet can be operated from a distance of half a kilometer. It is currently in use in Ukraine, adds Weber.
When it comes to ship cutting, this system requires far fewer workers than traditional ship dismantling, and Lawrence argues that it could one day complete the work much more quickly. Computer software developed by Leviathan automatically plans how to disassemble a vessel in the most efficient way possible.
On the other hand, all of this has a cost and the robot arms must be properly assembled on special platforms fixed in a dry dock. You can’t just put it on the beach.
Sefer Gunbeyaz from the University of Strathclyde studied worker exposure to toxic materials at shipbreaking facilities in the UK and Spain. Even in these countries, exposure — particularly to lead and iron particles — was “concerning,” he and colleagues found.
“It’s a promising start,” he says of the waterjet-based system in Germany. However, he notes that contaminants in the water used to dismantle ships must still be carefully managed.
Lawrence explains that the Stralsund facility will feature a containment area designed to capture jet water and toxic substances expelled from ships. Once carefully decontaminated, this water can be used for subsequent cuts.
The Netherlands-based Elegant Exit Company also claims it can dismantle ships responsibly. Earlier this year, it began recycling the Wan Hai 165, a 160-meter-long container ship.
The company uses gas-powered cutters at its facilities in Bahrain, but says it removes hazardous materials before processing the ships into large steel parts, up to 25 tons, for transport.
“We dismantle a ship like Lego,” says a spokeswoman, explaining that the idea is to safely dismantle each ship, part by part. The company will evaluate waterjet, plasma and hydraulic mechanical cutters in the future.
Ship recycling has been a dirty business for a long time, says Ingvild Jenssen, founder and director of Shipbreaking Platform, a non-governmental organization that monitors the industry.
“What’s even more shocking is that we have an entire maritime sector that is well aware of the problems,” he adds.
Some shipowners attempt to send ships from Europe to shipbreaking yards in South Asia, despite such exports being illegal.
A BBC investigation in 2020 revealed that three oil rigs detained by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) in 2018 had been earmarked for dismantling on a beach in India.
Since then, two of the structures have been dismantled at a European Union-approved shipyard in Turkey. “[A terceira plataforma, Ocean Princess] has not yet been dismantled and recovered, as it was only exported to Turkey in May 2023”, says Colin Morrow, from Sepa.
Better documentation of the hazardous materials contained in a container could help recyclers process them properly, Jenssen suggests.
Kuishuang Feng of the University of Maryland agrees and adds that vessel owners may also pay a fee when purchasing a vessel, which can be returned if it is later safely recycled.
Both Feng and Jenssen say current legislation, including the recently ratified Hong Kong Convention, does not go far enough to make ship dismantling sustainable. However, a spokeswoman for the International Maritime Organization argues that the convention will reduce the environmental impacts of ship recycling.
High-tech solutions can make a difference. Lawrence says Leviathan hopes to license its system to other shipbreaking yards — although he insists it would only allow this in safe, controlled environments, with the same capability to capture hazardous substances that he says exists at Stralsund.
As it currently stands, the situation in many South Asian shipyards continues to be one of “constant exploitation”, argues Jenssen. “You have workers who go to work — and don’t come home.”