My Voyage to Spaera

My Voyage to Spaera

Rob Palin
September 23, 2022

Whilst studying Physics at University in the UK, I realised the truth of the saying that if you do what you love, you never ‘work’ a day in your life.  The prospect of sacrificing so many hours of my life to enable truly living in the remainder just made no sense, so I resolved to find a better path.   I always loved motor racing, and especially its technological pinnacle, Formula 1, but there was no direct path from Physics to F1.  Specialising in aerodynamics gave me the opportunity to contribute to the sport I loved, while being an area that also fascinated me in its own right.  

Getting into F1 is near-impossible, with a strong old boys’ club thing going on, and I spent eight years doing aerodynamic consultancy for the Motor Industry Research Association (now just “MIRA”), while waiting for my opportunity to arise.  Over time, the diversity of work I was involved with? at MIRA, plus the incredible quality of the people around me, made me think that it was actually a pretty good destination on its own.  After all, many of the staff had spent 15-35 years there, so it was clearly a good place to be.

Rapid physical model alteration techniques for wind tunnel testing

A mixture of concern about abandoning a long-cherished dream, and fear of stagnation in a comfortable job led me to start pursuing a place in F1 again.  Eventually, I got what I wanted the most: a job doing aerodynamics for my favourite team, Williams F1!

The reality of working in F1 was far from the dream, however, at least in the era in which I managed to get there.  Politics were? dominant, and I was advised that the aerodynamics of the car were? too complicated to ever understand, so I should just look at what works on other cars, copy it, then try and refine it. I facetiously asked who we’d copied off when we were winning everything, and that was not well received.  Just a year of this was enough, and I accepted a friend’s request to help them out during a very busy time at the luxury car manufacturer, Bentley.

During this time, I was revaluating my goals, having achieved a life ambition, a new one was needed. Recognising that not everybody gets to achieve one life’s ambition, and having another would be a privilege, I wanted to use that opportunity to do something more positive for the world.  I looked at starting afresh, or partially retraining (such as adapting my Physics knowledge to medical imaging), but decided to make use of skills that had been hard-won. A serendipitous opportunity crossed my path, whereby I could apply my aerodynamics skills to making electric vehicles more efficient.  This was a welcome contrast to making racing cars drive in circles faster, or giant luxury barges marginally less consumptive.  It was also a chance to live in a different country, with the opportunities for personal growth that come with that.

At the time I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but joining Tesla during a tumultuous time in 2009 really did change my life completely.  At that point in its history, the CEO, Elon Musk, was very hands-on, and every Thursday morning would come and sit at your desk, and you essentially had 15-20 minutes to justify your continued employment with the company.  It was intense, especially since my visa, and right to be in the country at all, was dependent upon that employment.  While the intensity never really dropped very far, the rate of learning and growth was such that it just became the normal way of life.  Indeed, it became difficult to accept anything that wasn’t ‘maximum attack, 24/7/365’, which can make some more mundane parts of life almost intolerable (think the DMV sloth scene from Zootopia, but for everything!).

One of the key transformations during this experience, was the understanding that we should always endeavour to find the truth, or ultimate clarity in what we’re doing.  For electric cars, one example would be whether switching from combustion engines to batteries is a net improvement for the environment, when you take into account all the acquiring of materials, charging of batteries, and so on.  Yes, is the answer, but validating that required really digging into every nook and cranny of the process of designing, making, selling, and operating a personal vehicle.  There’s a lot to it!  

Tesla Model 3 Unveiling

The three big areas that surfaced were the upstream consequences of material mining, that diesel fuels are used in the distribution of new EVs by semi-truck, and heavy fuel oils to move EVs internationally by ship. These heavier-duty petroleum products lead to emissions of the worst kinds of pollutants, which are not just extremely powerful drivers of climate change, but some of the particulate emissions have catastrophic effects on respiratory health of people living near busy freight routes.  The semi-truck industry is soon to be transformed by the arrival of electrified vehicles, but oceanic shipping remains a very challenging problem.  

I have been helping a team of ex-Tesla and ex-Waymo engineers working toward an autonomous electric semi-truck, but shipping offers the possibility of not just reducing the impact of airflows, but actually using them to our advantage.  The Wind powered ship travel for thousands of years, and somehow the discovery of fossil fuels made us forget that.  At first I just looked at replacing the diesel generators used for electrical power on board ships, but it quickly became apparent that the parallels were broad to the electrification of cars and trucks.  Put simply, you can’t put a bunch of batteries into a vehicle instead of its combustion engine, and expect it to be any good!  Instead, you need to go back to a clean sheet of paper, and design the vehicle specifically to take advantage of the different propulsion characteristics.  

Spaera are working toward a cargo ship powered by a combination of fuel cells and sails.  Fuel cells are essentially a smarter and more controlled way of releasing energy from chemicals than just making them explode. Similarly, we use a more modern interpretation of sails, exploiting the advances in harnessing the wind that we’ve made since learning to fly, to make wind turbines, and so on.  Between them, we can power a ship to move cargo with no harmful emissions at all.  

Same mission, larger scale

The original mission statement for Tesla was to persuade the wider automotive industry of the potential of electric cars.  It succeeded by invalidating the negative perceptions about compromises and limitations, and now every car manufacturer in the world is planning an electrified future.  Similarly, the goal for Spaera is to demonstrate the real potential of an alternative approach to combustion engines for ships, by manifesting the advantages that can come with it. These advantages don’t have to be limited to just eliminating the terrible environmental impacts, but can also include things like dramatically reducing the operating costs of a ship, due to heavy utilisation of free energy harvested from the environment.  Reversing the dynamics of OpEx vs CapEx could really shift the economics of the industry, enabling different business models, and lowering the barriers to entry.  

Spaera demonstrating these possibilities will encourage other shipping companies to recognise the huge potential of the new era, to adopt this approach, and to start the gradual, but wholesale, transition of shipping to a cheaper, cleaner, and truly sustainable future.