Given keen competition between steamship lines to capture a share of the cold chain business, ocean carriers are looking at ways to implement innovative refrigerated (reefer) technologies and practices. While Maersk Line and other shipping lines order reefer equipment from the same manufacturers, from that perspective, the reefer containers are identical. However, each manufacturer has its own proprietary software that controls the different components that are part of its reefer unit design.
“This is necessary because each different unit has different parts and operates differently,” says Barbara Pratt, Maersk Line - Reefer Management – Safmarine Line, USA Cluster – Inland Operations. “The ultimate goal of each manufacturer is to deliver the required temperatures that help to prolong the shelf life of the various products that are carried in the units.”
The difference comes by the way the steamship lines operate the reefers—in other words, what type of software is used and how the cooling is applied in the container space and to the commodity.
“So what Maersk (and other carriers) do is monitor the temperatures on the reefer units – mostly set temperature, supply air temperature and return air temperature – as those are the most important reefer unit performance standards,” Pratt says.
With the maturing of technology used to regulate the temperatures of reefer containers, such as temperature control microprocessors, the industry is concentrating more on energy consumption and conservation.
“The design of the reefer unit is what determines the energy consumption of that unit at the different set points that the commodities require,” Pratt explains. “Maersk Line does not design the refrigeration units. That is done by the manufacturers. Maersk Line of course is concerned about energy consumption and conservation – and works with the manufacturers wherever possible to achieve those goals.”
In that effort, Maersk Line, in partnership with Carrier Transicold and Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research in the Netherlands, has developed jointly a power-saving mode for its container refrigeration united called QUEST™II—short for QUality and Energy in Storage and Transport.
Maersk reports that QUEST II is its latest initiative to maintain cargo quality, and at the same time, reduce CO2 emissions from its reefer container fleet. According to a press release issued by Carrier, QUEST II gives shipping lines like Maersk a means to reduce energy required for refrigeration by up to 65 percent while reducing emissions related to power generation.
“QUEST II is new software developed to control the refrigeration system on Maersk Line’s reefers,” reports Maersk. “QUEST II is unique to Maersk.”
The software is designed for use with perishable cargoes, helping improve refrigerated container shipping by reducing costs associated with onboard energy production and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Its original QUEST mode was introduced in 2007.
By implementing QUEST II throughout its refrigerated container operations, Maersk Line anticipates a 350,000 metric ton reduction in its annual CO2-equivalent (CO2e) emissions, an amount comparable to the CO2e emissions of cars driving 1.2 billion miles.
The reduced power loads enabled by QUEST technology also allow Maersk vessels to accommodate more refrigerated containers than possible before. Savings and efficiencies are achieved while also maintaining strict adherence to product quality and customer satisfaction.
Wageningen UR, Maersk Line and Carrier Transicold extensively tested QUEST II on various commodities, including apples, bananas, pineapples, kiwifruit, grapes, garlic, iceberg lettuce, chilled lamb meat, lily bulbs and potted plants. These items were selected because of their known temperature sensitivity and the large volumes in which they are regularly transported.
While not new, the steamship line also continues to address GPS technology and remote monitoring, which gives them the ability to ensure quality assurance while cold chain products are in transit.
“Maersk uses GPS technology on our gensets in the United States,” Pratt reports. “We have also investigated various different remote reefer monitoring systems over the years.”
Currently, Maersk Line is in the process of testing and refining a reefer monitoring system whereby a GPS/GSM-based device would be fitted across its entire fleet of reefer containers. The technology would allow Maersk to manage reefer shipments remotely and has significant implications for the ability of container terminals to charge for reefer monitoring services.
While Maersk implemented GPS technology in the late 1970s and 1980s, this technology has changed quickly from power line communications to cell phone satellite communication.
“As the technology evolves, we look at that continuously,” Pratt says. “Obviously, higher value products such as those in the pharmaceutical industry or military have different requirements than those, such as frozen product, that are more sensitive to temperature fluctuation.”
Controlled Atmosphere Technology
Cold treatment is a special service offered by Maersk. Its purpose is to exterminate insects and larvae by maintaining a sufficiently low temperature for a pre-determined period of time. The period of time and temperature required are defined in protocols established by phythosanitary authorities of the importing countries. They differ from country to country whether cold treatment is required or not.
Maersk’s responsibility is to assure twice daily monitoring of the containers and make sure the temperature is maintained in accordance with the Cold Treatment protocol during transit.
Because of the optimum temperature a perishable must be maintained at to ensure freshness varies from one to the next, steamship lines utilize Controlled Atmosphere (CA) technology (CA), a mature technology that is used as a means to extending the shelf life of product. For bananas, for example, Maersk recommends settings at +14OC. Bananas carried in a normal reefer container should have a temperature setting of +13.3C -> 13.5C.
While this technology is fairly mature, Pratt contends that it continues to be used as a means to extending the shelf life of product.
“Maersk Line uses two different types of CA systems—the EverFresh system that was developed by the reefer unit manufacturer Carrier Transicold and the Starcare system that was developed by the reefer unit manufacturer MCI (Maersk Container Industries). Both are membrane based systems and are applicable to somewhat different commodities.”
Maersk has systems on a significant number of its reefer units. “As a shipper has needs, we make sure we have the right equipment to meet their needs,” Pratt says.
Shippers are also introducing innovative technologies in their efforts to extend the shelf life of a commodity or the transit time in which their specific commodity can move. For example, shippers and packers are increasingly using modified atmosphere packaging bags (MAP), a revolutionary permeable plastic bag that allows the transfer of gases directly through its plastic membrane.
“There are similar technologies, but various types of bags are out there and many are owned by the packing houses or shippers themselves,” Pratt explains. Maersk ships a number of perishables with MAP bags. “These are moved more in standard refrigeration units,” Pratt adds. “Just about anybody can move that kind of thing provided their reefer unit maintains temperature.”
When it comes to packaging innovations, steamship lines usually get involved when a shipper wants to use particular technology used in stationary storage that they would like to apply to transportation.
“Everyone’s intention is to maintain quality during the refrigerated transit while reducing cost, particularly during the current economy,” she explains. “They still want to move product into various markets where it is not readily available.”
While fruits and vegetables used to be a seasonable commodity, today consumers are able to purchase these cold chain products year round. “The business is now more consistent, but the seasons remain what they are given the dynamics of the market,” Pratt says. “Everyone is driving for the consistency, but it is not the same in each trade lane. Shippers are also focusing on postharvest handling practices and quality control as well as their exclusive packaging to maximize the shelf life of the commodities they handle.”