Lightweighting shipping containers: Life cycle impacts on multimodal freight transportation

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Freight transportation by truck, train, and ship accounts for 5% of the United States’ annual energy consumption (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2017a). Much of this freight is transported in shipping containers. Lightweighting containers is an unexplored strategy to decrease energy and GHG emissions. We evaluate life cycle fuel savings and environmental performance of lightweighting scenarios applied to a forty-foot (12.2 meters) container transported by ship, train, and truck. Use phase burdens for both conventional and lightweighted containers (steel reduction, substitution with aluminum, or substitution with high tensile steel) were compared to life cycle burdens. The study scope ranged from the transportation of one container 100 km to the lifetime movement of the global container fleet on ships. Case studies demonstrated the impact of lightweighting on typical multimodal freight deliveries to the United States. GREET 1 and 2 (Argonne National Laboratory, 2016a,b) were used to estimate the total fuel cycle burdens associated with use phase fuel consumption. Fuel consumption was determined using modal Fuel Reduction Values (FRV), which relate mass reduction to fuel reduction. A lifetime reduction of 21% in the fuel required to transport a container, and 1.4% in the total fuel required to move the vehicles, cargo, and containers can be achieved. It was determined that a 10% reduction in mass of the system will result in a fuel reduction ranging from 2% to 8.4%, depending on the mode. Globally, container lightweighting can reduce energy demand by 3.6 EJ and GHG emissions by 300 million tonnes CO2e over a 15-year lifetime.

Research Areas: 
Life cycle assessment
Energy analysis
GHG emissions
Fuel reduction value
Publication Type: 
Journal Article
Transportation Research Part D
Date Published: 
July 2018
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Full Citation: 
Buchanan, Cailin, Marwan Charara, John L. Sullivan, Geoffrey M. Lewis and Gregory A. Keoleian. (2018) “Lightweighting shipping containers: Life cycle impacts on multimodal freight transportation.” Transportation Research Part D 62:418-432.
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