The world’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) powered containership, the Isla Bella, made its first journey through the Panama Canal on Oct. 30, just two weeks after shipbuilder General Dynamics NASSCO made delivery of the ship to owner TOTE Maritime (see Daily GPI, Oct. 19).

Marked by the maritime industry as an important milestone, the 764-foot long Marlin Class container ship is the “cleanest cargo-carrying ship anywhere in the world,” according to the General Dynamics subsidiary. NASSCO added that the new technology will dramatically decrease emissions and increase fuel efficiency when compared to conventionally-powered ships, the equivalent of removing 15,700 automobiles from the road.

By utilizing natural gas, the 3,100 TEU (20 foot-equivalent unit) capacity Isla Bella will reduce NOx emissions by 98%, SOx by 97%, carbon dioxide by 72% and particulate matter by 60% over the Ponce Class ships currently serving in service on the route, TOTE Maritime said.

As part of a two-ship contract signed by General Dynamics NASSCO and TOTE Maritime in December 2012, the other ship — Perla del Caribe — is expected to enter service sometime during the first quarter of 2016. Both ships will operate between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

TOTE Maritime is also in the process of converting its two Alaska Orca Class ships, the MV North Star and MV Midnight Sun to natural gas.

The moves came after the International Maritime Organization designated the coastlines of North America as an Emission Control Area in 2010, imposing new emissions standards on the shipping industry. The shipping company said that rather than doing the bare minimum to meet the new standards, it saw an opportunity to lead the industry by investing in LNG engine technology for its fleet.

Separately, the Panama Canal Authority is exploring the potential to add LNG infrastructure at the canal to take advantage of the anticipated LNG tanker traffic once the canal’s expansion project is completed next year. The current canal lock system is too small to accommodate LNG tankers. The expansion will create a new lane of traffic and allow for increased traffic and larger ships. The New Panamax size vessels can carry more than twice as much cargo as current Panamax ships.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) issued a grant to support the study of the benefits of LNG infrastructure at the canal (see Daily GPI, June 29).

“As we near the completion of the Panama Canal Expansion, we are eager to explore new segments such as LNG, which are now possible given our enhanced capacity to accommodate longer and wider ships,” Canal Administrator Jorge Quijano said in June. “This grant by the USTDA will build on plans and projects related to LNG that are already ongoing and will present us with the ability to evaluate additional market opportunities and client services for the benefit of the U.S.-Panama energy trade.”

The USTDA-funded feasibility study will help the ACP set priorities and plan projects related to LNG infrastructure and natural gas utilization at the Panama Canal. The canal authority has also proposed new tolls that are intended to encourage the transit of LNG cargoes through the passage (see Daily GPI, Jan. 9).