With the Environmental Protection Agency cracking down on emissions this year, much of the focus has been on the pollution caused by coal-fired power plants. And it's not hard to find an auto company rolling out its next generation hybrid.
But less attention has been paid to fishing boats, cruise ships, and freighters that traverse the world's marine highways. Richard Kimball, a professor with Maine Maritime Academy, says the primary fuel used by ships is not known for being very green.
"The marine diesels are of lower grade than what you'd find on trucks on the roads," he says. "They tend to burn the heavier fuels. They're less expensive, but they also tend to burn dirtier."
Marine diesel is high in sulphur, says Kimball, and sulphur emissions are linked to acid rain, as well as respiratory ailments in port towns. And marine engines are responsible for about 5 percent of the world's total heat-producing carbon emissions. That's more than any single country in the European Union.
Kimball says trying to get ships to go green is challenging because most were built to burn "dirty" fuel and nothing else. But in 2011, the International Maritime Organization - that's an industry group formed under the United Nations - agreed to a crack-down on the air pollution caused by ships.
The goal is to cut such emissions by 30 percent over the next two decades. New ships would need to feature more efficient and cleaner-burning designs. But for ships already built, says Darrell Donahue, director of research at MMA, the way forward isn't so clear.
"People worldwide are trying to play catch up, and there are a number of ways that you can do that," he says. "You can retrofit engines, but engines and ships are fairly large, they're fairly expensive, so it's very difficult to do that. So, another way to do that is leave the engine that you have in place, and maybe modify the fuel."
Enter Maine Maritime Academy. Bolstered by the check for $1.4 million, the school plans to launch a new Marine Engine Testing and Emissions Laboratory, known for short as METEL. President William Brennan says while the school has a more than 70-year history training students how to be merchant mariners, its desire to lead science and technical innovation shouldn't come as a surprise.
"It's a natural evolution as time has passed, as the industries that we work in have become more sensitive to the needs for efficiency, and also for emissions reduction and the like," he says. "It's natural that a college like this would be exploring those kinds of areas."
Among projects to be tested at the new lab are fuel additives that can reduce emissions while keeping the same low-cost diesel currently in use; hydrogen-injected fuels, forest biomass fuels, and ways to convert waste heat into usable energy.
But all of this will come at a cost. The U.S. Department of Transportation is kicking in $1.4 million in the first year, with another grant to follow in the next, which is expected to be about the same amount. All of the money will be used to fund the program.
But it won't help build any infrastructure, says Brennan, and the lab doesn't have a permanent home yet. "We're basically doing sophisticated research in buildings that were built in the 1860's," he says.
MMA is hoping to put its research labs in its new ABS Center for Engineering, Science, and Research, scheduled for construction next year. That building isn't completely paid for yet. The school is looking for $4.5 million from the state in a bond issue that will appear as Question #4 on the November 2013 ballot.
With or without that state money, the lab is going ahead, says Brennan. But he says without 21st century infrastructure, it's going to be difficult to solve 21st century problems.