The world's first LNG-powered containership, Isla Bella, just before the launch. The ship was built in the US, using technology developed in South Korea. Image: TOTE Maritime.

US-Korea Collaboration Driving Innovation in Shipbuilding and Energy Industries


For the first time, a cargo ship is sailing the seas fueled by liquefied natural gas (LNG). American manufacturer General Dynamics NASSCO finished testing and delivered the containership Isla Bella to US domestic trade company TOTE Maritime on Oct 16th. TOTE ordered this containership in 2012 and it will be operated between the US mainland and Puerto Rico. South Korean company DSEC was in charge of design and generating the LNG Fuel Gas Supply System (FGSS) for the Isla Bella, and it has been in partnership with NASSCO since 2006. LNG-powered ships produce fewer pollutants, as well as a substantial reduction of sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and other particulate emissions compared to existing vessels.

The introduction of new fuel technologies has brought new activity to the American shipbuilding industry. The shale gas boom, as well as new environmental regulations, contributed to the drive to innovate and increased international technological cooperation. South Korea’s substantial shipbuilding expertise made it a natural partner in these efforts. United States shipping is protected by The Jones Act, enacted in 1920, which requires that goods and passengers transported by water between US ports be carried on vessels constructed in the US, owned by US citizens, and crewed by US citizens. Though the ships were fully constructed in the US under the rules of the Jones Act, Korea’s DSEC developed the high-tech designs for the LNG tanks and FGSS. Their system was nominated as one of Top 10 technologies of the year in Korea in 2014, and involved more than 200 patents worldwide.

The American shale boom has had additional impacts in Asia beyond sparking technical innovation. Japan and South Korea are the largest LNG importers in the world, and benefit from US energy exports. Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) is contracted to import 3.5 million metric tons of LNG annually from Sabine Pass Terminal in Louisiana starting in 2017. Sabine Pass is the first terminal authorized to export American natural gas by the US Government. Japan is also working on importing American LNG, with deals in place to import 16.9 million tons of LNG from terminals in Freeport, Texas, Cove Point, Maryland, and Cameron, Louisiana. Increasing mobility of LNG is also bringing in new orders for LNG carriers and tankers to be built at Korean shipyards. US-Asia energy trade is not limited to just gas, as oil exports have also occurred under certain conditions in recent years.

Seoyoung Baek is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, ASAN Washington Young Fellow, and an undergraduate student at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.