Days 209-213: Hnakkaþon

The spring semester at Reykjavik University started with the annual Fisheries Challenge, Hnakkaþon.*  It was one of the most interesting projects yet.

Although Iceland is now a popular tourist destination and a leader in geothermal energy technology, for most of its existence it was an economic basket case: a barren rock beset by fierce weather, disappointing agriculture, and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions.  You had to be resourceful to survive in Iceland.  And stubborn.

As I mentioned in my last post, fishing has always been a vital part of the Icelandic economy.  For the first thousand years after settlement, Icelanders ventured to sea in wooden rowboats to catch cod, herring, and other fish that thrive in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.  Sailboats were used, too, starting in the 18th Century, but rowboats were still the backbone of the fishing fleet until motorboats came into use in the early 20th Century.  Now there are about 1700 registered fishing vessels in Iceland.

Venus NS 150
A modern fishing vessel.  In case you ever wondered how your fish fillet got started on its way to your plate …  Image credit: HB Grandi hf.

Diesel is a reasonably efficient fuel source for maritime use.  It yields slightly less energy than burning an equal mass of gasoline, but because diesel is more dense than gasoline, you can get more energy out of a liter of diesel than an equal volume of gas: about 11% more, on average.  This is important if you’re on a boat far from the nearest filling station.  Diesel lets you stay at sea for longer periods of time, and thus to catch more fish.

Unfortunately, diesel also emits about 14% more CO2 than an equivalent volume of gasoline.  Iceland, like most of the world’s nations, has agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years.  In some countries, a logical place to cut back on carbon emissions would be the production of electricity: getting rid of coal-fired power plants, for example, and replacing them with geothermal, hydropower, wind, or solar.  But Iceland got rid of its fossil-fuel electricity plants decades ago.  Now the largest source of CO2 emissions is the transportation sector: cars, planes, and boats.

How could anyone pass up a challenge like that?

This year’s Hnakkaþon competition challenged students to find ways to reduce the carbon emissions of the Icelandic fishing fleet by 40% below 1990 levels; to do it in 25 years; and to do it without disrupting the economy, which still heavily relies on fishing for jobs and national income.

Hnakkaþon was strictly a voluntary project: you could pick your teammates and organize your team however you wanted.  The only restriction was that all the participants had to be students at the University.  The team I was part of consisted of classmates from the Sustainable Energy program: we had two Americans, an Icelander, a Canadian, and a student from Switzerland.  The competition was extremely time-compressed:  we got a packet of information (containing the industry-wide goals we were supposed to meet, data on the Icelandic fishing industry in general, and detailed information on a specific company for whom we were to propose a way to meet the industry goals) on a Thursday afternoon.  We had to have a written proposal and a slide presentation explaining it ready for the competition judges by Saturday afternoon.

Given the timeline involved, it was clear that the teams would not be able to come up with fully-developed solutions.  But with sixteen groups in the competition, the odds were good that we’d be able to at least identify some promising approaches that could be the subject of later research.  The prize was an all-expense paid trip to Boston, where the winning team members would present their proposal to an international fishing industry conference.

One obvious approach would be to change the way the ships are powered.  There’s no immediate likelihood that the ships will be able to switch to electric motors — the energy density of rechargeable batteries (the amount of energy stored per unit of mass) is much, much lower than the density of diesel fuel: today’s batteries yield less than one megajoule per kilogram (MJ/kg), whereas diesel is in the 40-45 MJ/kg range depending on the blend.

Until better batteries are developed, battery-driven vessels will have to come back to port much more often than ships that use diesel. Image credit: Scott Dial.

But ships spend a lot of time in port, and they traditionally run their shipboard electrical systems while there using the same diesel generators that they use while at sea.  One solution might be to plug the ships into Iceland’s electrical grid instead, replacing fossil fuel-produced power with cleaner power from Iceland’s geothermal and hydropower sources.

Wiring the ports with electrical hookups so that the ships can turn off their generators while docked isn’t simple; there are voltage and other compatibility issues to be considered. It is, however, a technically feasible approach, and would help cut back CO2 emissions.  A 2011 study at the Port of Seattle, for example, found that switching to shore power could reduce ship carbon emissions by 25-30%.  Other possible solutions include changing the mix of vessels in the fleet, or replacing older, less fuel-efficient engines with new ones.

Our team didn’t win the Hnakkathon, but we enjoyed the challenge and brainstorming our way to a solution.  And one of the approaches we considered worked its way into our first classroom project of the new semester.  More on that later.

IFF cover slide



* more or less pronounced huNAK-a-thon.

Cover image credit:  Wallpaper Cave (


One thought on “Days 209-213: Hnakkaþon

  1. Chris: It was nice meeting you last night. Thanks for the conversation about the Northerm Lights. Great photos. Impressive blog. Thanks Stephen


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