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New technology captures harmful ship emissions at the Port of Oakland

Smokestack vac captures harmful ship emissions at the Port of Oakland
Smokestack vac captures harmful ship emissions at the Port of Oakland 03:03

OAKLAND -- For more than two decades, Mike Walker worked his way to the top of the technology world earning a mid-six-figure salary as the CEO of several successful startups but even though he was living the dream, something was missing.

"It's super important to find the reason why you want to do something," he said. 

His latest venture, Stax Engineering, may just be the Holy Grail of business: Making money out of thin air while also saving the planet. 

For the past couple years, Walker and his team have been on a mission against emissions. His company builds green barges that serve as giant vacuum cleaners, capturing exhaust from container ships while they're berthed at port. 

The barge comes equipped with what they call a boom, a giant bendable arm that helps suck up emissions from a ship's exhaust. 

"It's 245 feet, it extends itself up and over the vessel where a long elephant-like trunk comes down and we put that over the top of the stack and that's where the emissions are gathered," Walker explained. 

A 2020 study from Spain (PDF) showed 265,000 premature deaths attributed to global shipping emissions that year. 

State regulations require vessels to plug in to the local electrical grid, known as shore power, which allows ships to turn off their engines while at berth. But that's not always possible. 

Colleen Liang, the director of environmental programs and panning at the Port of Oakland said that many of these ships don't have shore power capabilities. 

"Sometimes the vessel cannot simply plug in. Whether it's an old vessel or the shore power infrastructure is not in the right location," she said. "This is an alternative solution that still complies with the state."

Called "capture and control technology," it's been gaining momentum in recent years as more port communities demand tighter air quality restrictions. 

The idea is to have all ships eventually plug into a shore power grid on land so they don't run their engines as they sit idle at the port. 

Angela Csondes, a supervisor at the California Air and Resources Board said these new barges are a good stop-gap for ships that don't want to invest in shore power infrastructure. Even though these green barges can filter out 99 percent of particulate matter and other diesel pollutants, it's not as clean as just plugging in.

"With these capture systems you're burning fuel, she said, "while with shore power systems you shut down the engine without using any fuel." 

On a recent May morning, Walker and his team were helping a vessel whose electrical outlet was too far to reach from land.

The boom was deployed from the barge and hovered over the ship. As it got close, an engineer connected it to the ship's smokestack like a giant range hood. Within seconds the black smoke was gone. 

"We get to see in very clear terms the smoke going away from being distributed out into the air and being captured into these systems. It's almost instant gratification," Walker said. 

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