Pump water into sand to free Suez Canal ship – Edinburgh University professor Stephen Salter

The giant container ship blocking the Suez Canal could be freed by pumping water into the sand beneath it, an Edinburgh engineering expert proposed today.

Saturday, 27th March 2021, 7:30 pm
Updated Sunday, 28th March 2021, 6:02 pm

Professor Stephen Salter told The Scotsman that “fluidising” sand under the 220,000-ton Ever Given could be the solution

However, he said the canal authorities might even decide to blow it up, such was the urgency of re-opening the waterway, which carries around 10 per cent of the world’s trade.

The Panama-flagged vessel, operated by Evergreen Marine, was travelling from Asia to Europe which it became stuck sideways across the canal after running aground on Tuesday.

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A digger clearing sand from beside the grounded Ever Given on Thursday. Picture: Suez Canal Authority/PA

The emeritus professor of engineering design at the University of Edinburgh said: "We’re looking at fluidising the sand underneath the ship by pumping water under it to blow out the sand.

"It seems to me that would have a fairly good chance of working.

"I would give it 50/50.

Prof Salter said the process involved water separating granules of sand so it behaved more like a liquid.

Professor Stephen Salter has worked on "fluidising" sand. Picture: University of Edinburgh

He said: "It is usually used to accelerate combustion in coal-fired power stations, but you could also use it for moving material up from underneath a ship, or near the bow.

“You would need water pumps and hoses that you could poke down under the ship.

"What I have done is drop a little note about this to a political friend who has lots of contacts.

"I’ll let him decide whether he wants to forward it.

A satellite image showing the Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal today. Picture: Maxar Technologies/AP

"He would know exactly who it ought to go to, and would certainly pass it on.

"Every inventor in the world will be thinking of clever ideas for it and the canal people will be deluged.

"I want to be able to go to my grave feeling that at least I did my little bit.

"The trouble is they desperately need to do it quickly because of all the ships queuing up.

"They might decide the best thing is to blow the ship up.”

Prof Salter said that had been done during the Gulf War.

The academic said he had been unimpressed by efforts so far to shift sand in an attempt to free the ship.

He said: “The last I heard they were having to have an excavator, which looked a pretty pathetic small one, trying to scoop sand away.”

Prof Salter, the inventor of the “Salter Duck” wave energy device, said he was surprised the ship had got stuck, and how long the recovery operation was taking.

He said: “I would have thought they would have the right equipment.

"The problem was they had very, very strong crosswinds – but that’s quite a common thing.

"Maybe it’s just a particularly big ship.

"They also didn’t use a tug – other ships going through just before they got jammed did use tugs, so that may have been a mistake.”

The Ever Given got stuck in a single-lane stretch of the canal, nearly 4 miles north of the southern entrance, near the city of Suez.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement plans to pump water from interior spaces of the vessel, while two more tugs are due to arrive by Sunday to join others already trying to move the vessel.

Lieutenant General Osama Rabie, head of the canal authority, said he did not know how long it would take to dislodge the ship.

He hoped a dredging operation could free the Ever Given without having to resort to removing its cargo to lighten it.

A maritime traffic jam has grown to more than 320 vessels near Port Said in the Mediterranean, Port Suez on the Red Sea and in the canal system on Egypt's Great Bitter Lake.

Peter Berdowski, chief executive of Boskalis, the salvage firm hired to extract the Ever Given, said it hoped to pull the container ship free within days using a combination of heavy tugs, dredging and high tides.

He told the Dutch current affairs show Nieuwsuur last night that the front of the ship was stuck in sandy clay, but the rear "has not been completely pushed into the clay and that is positive because you can use the rear end to pull it free".

He said a crane was on its way to lift containers off the ship if required.

An initial investigation showed the vessel ran aground due to strong winds and ruled out mechanical or engine failure.

The canal is particularly crucial for transporting oil and its closure could affect oil and gas shipments to Europe from the Middle East.

Some vessels have rerouted round Africa.

Captain Nick Sloane, a maritime salvage expert who led the high-profile effort to salvage the cruise ship Costa Concordia in 2012, said extracting the Ever Given was "quite a challenge" and could take up to a week.

He said the vessel’s location, size and large amount of cargo made the operation more complex.

He said the operation should focus initially on dredging the bank and sea floor around it to get it floating again, rather than unloading its cargo, which could take weeks.

Captain Sloane, vice president of the International Salvage Union, said that was because the clock was also ticking structurally for the vessel.

He said: "The longer it takes, the worse the condition of the ship will become, because she's slowly sagging.

"Ships are designed to flex, but not to be kept at that position with a full load of cargo for weeks at a time.

"So it's not an easy situation."

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