Boundary Layer wants to steal lunch from air freight and ship it by sea instead – TechCrunch

If you’ve ever spent time writing beat poetry about container ships chugging their way in and out of ports, “nimble” or “quick” probably won’t make it into your finely crafted written words. And if your (admittedly increasingly esoteric) poetic bent is more of an airfreight persuasion, “affordable” probably wasn’t in your lexicon. Boundary Layer is working on a range of electrically powered hydrofoiling vessels and aims to rewrite the book of transport-focused verse verse by verse with agile, fast-loading standard high-speed container ship vessels with the goal of halving the cost of traditional air freight at comparable speeds.

The company raised $4.8 million from Lower Carbon Capital, Fifty Years and Soma Capital and already has $90 million in pre-orders from ferry operators for their 220-seat electric passenger ships. The passenger ships are just a stepping stone before the company pursues its real goal: the cargo market. I spoke to Boundary Layer CEO and Founder Ed Kearney, who told me that these early ships represent a launch pad for entering the $100 billion air cargo market with a high-speed, hydrogen-powered container ship.

“We applied to Y Combinator and were accepted. We told the partners in the interview that if we were accepted into Y Combinator, we would come to the Bay Area and build a hydrofoil container ship that would transport a container,” says Kearney. The Y Combinator team called bullshit, he tells me. The team rolled up their sleeves and got to work. “We showed up with a few Hand tools in the luggage, no workshop, nowhere to live, and started building. Ten weeks later we managed to build this hydrofoil. We spent $150,000 on it, which happens to be exactly the amount of money YC gives you. We parked in front of the facility for demo day and it made a little impression.”

It’s easy to see how; The company’s prototype ship – and the video it produced to show it off – looks pretty snazzy:

Of course, the challenge with hydrofoiling is that it takes quite a bit of energy to get the hull out of the water, and that gets harder as the ship gets heavier. The largest cargo ships in the world can transport around 24,000 containers at once. Needless to say, these behemoths won’t casually raise their hulls out of the water – but that’s not what the company is competing with either.

“The physics [of hydrofoiling] is very similar to that of an airplane. The lift-to-drag ratio you can get today with modern materials on a wing is about the same as what you can get on a conventional airplane. So the amount of power you need to put a vehicle with the same amount of mass start is also comparable. The thrust required also scales with speed,” explains Kearney. “An airplane flies at 500 knots – we fly 40 – but they still need 12 times more power. In short we solved it by taking a smaller ship, you get very weight conscious and need a lot of strength. That means we need big fuel cells and batteries.”

The company’s vision is not to replace conventional sea freight, the freight rates – that would be madness; The price of sea freight is incredibly low, which is why around 90% of all goods consumed worldwide are shipped this way. The company tells me that local trucking, which takes the container the last few hundred miles of its journey, can be more expensive than the 6,000-mile sea voyage.

“We will build container ships, but we don’t compete with container ships. We are replace air freight. Think of components and other goods they ship via air freight. They’re already paying very high freight rates of $2 to $3 per kilogram,” explains Kearney. “Inter Asia is the most exciting market for us because it is the largest market for air freight. These customers already have very high value goods that need to be transported quickly and we can offer them a half price alternative to air freight with comparable transit times.”

Boundary Layer’s prototype battery pack is 95 kWh and 415 volts – very similar to what you might find in a high-performance electric car (the Tesla Model 3 Performance, for example, contains an 82 kWh 350V lithium-ion pack). Photo credit: boundary layer

Of course, an airplane will outperform a ship cruising at sea any day of the week, but Boundary Layer believes high speed and the use of standard containers make it competitive. The whole point is that containerized transport can make shipping an order of magnitude more efficient. A manufacturer in Taiwan can fill a 20- or 40-foot container with everything they need for shipping, load it onto a truck, ship it to one of Boundary Layer’s high-speed container ships, and then ship it onto a truck in North Korea loaded and delivered to the assembly plant. All of this can be done without unloading and reloading the container – which can be locked and sealed for the entire voyage. When shipping by air, even when the goods are on pallets, the company cites significant inefficiencies.

If you really want to know why container commerce is such an advantage, there’s an incredible eight-part podcast series that will keep you hooked for a few hours. One for the transport nerds. Anyway – back to the boundary layer…

“We have three Fortune 500 companies as launch partners — one in electronics, one in automotive supplies, and one in electronic equipment,” claims Kearney, who declined to name the companies for now, but claims the three partners have letters of intent (LOI ) worth $26 million and an additional $60 million in pre-orders for the passenger ferries spanning the world: “The passenger ferry customers will be announced soon, but they are all over the world, including the Mediterranean, the USA and the Caribbean”

Boundary Layer created a video to showcase their passenger ferry:

The company attaches great importance to the fact that its vehicles are emission-free.

“All of our ships will be zero-emission and ultimately propulsion will come from electric motors. The passenger ferry will only have lithium-ion batteries powering the electrical system,” says Kearney. “We need a range of 1,500 nautical miles for the container ship. Batteries only really get you about 100 nautical miles, so we use liquid hydrogen for cargo. That even gets us to 10,000 nautical miles if you wanted very large tanks. The electrical system between the passenger ferry and the cargo ship will be identical. The difference is where the electricity comes from.”

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