What Are the Different Types of Marine Propulsion Systems?

Posted on August 10, 2022 Jack Kartan Aerospace

As the marine propulsion systems/engine market is gaining considerable traction for the ability to power massive cargo ships, it is only becoming more apparent that the demand for these sustainable engines is on the rise. Marine propulsion systems propel ships through water, ensuring a better safety standard for the marine ecosystem and cost efficiency. With the intent to fight pollution, worldwide emission reduction goals have been set for the maritime sector that can be achieved with such systems.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is hoping to reduce the carbon intensity of international shipping by at least 40% by 2030 and by 70% by 2050. In support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 13, the IMO is making its priority to combat climate change and its impact. Moreover, shifting trends in maritime transportation are expected to encourage marine propulsion systems industry growth to the extent that the latest Global Market Insights predicts that the marine propulsion systems market will cross $11 billion (USD) by 2026.  

Since the marine propulsion engine market is driven by a need for faster, cleaner, and fuel-efficient engines, we must look at the latest technological developments in the market. There are a myriad of marine propulsion system options, all of which are defined by their vessel size, trade, and operation. To better understand how varying marine propulsion systems work, we will outline some of the most common types below.

Wind Propulsion

Wind-assisted propulsion consists of using sails or a type of wind capture device. With increasing fuel costs and the fuel consumption decrease that sails provide, wind power is becoming the preferred option for propelling commercial ships. Furthermore, wind propulsion is a feasible alternative to other propulsion systems that emit large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Steam Turbine Propulsion

Steam turbine propulsion was utilized primarily between 1800-1950 and involved the use of water and coal or another steam-generating fuel. However, when diesel engines and gas turbines were introduced into the industry, the use of steam turbines dramatically dipped. This was mostly due to the fact that diesel engines required less maintenance.

Diesel Propulsion

Diesel propulsion serves as the most common system today, offering greater efficiency than its counterparts.

Gas Turbine Propulsion

Gas turbine systems are mainly used in naval ships where the need for speed is paramount. In fact, some warships and a few modern cruise ships used steam turbines alongside their gas turbines to improve their efficiency in a combined cycle. This cycle consists of waste heat from the gas turbine exhaust being utilized to boil water and create steam to drive the steam turbine.

Nuclear Propulsion

This propulsion type includes a wide range of propulsion methods that take advantage of nuclear reactivity as their primary power source. More than that, nuclear propulsion may provide the most improved fuel cost and increased performance. For this reason, the IMO is considering small nuclear reactors like those used by the Nuclear Navy.

Fuel Cell Propulsion

Through the electrification of batteries and fuel cells, fuel cell propulsion systems convert fuel more efficiently than traditional combustion engines. Additionally, they reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar Propulsion

This propulsion system is hybrid-powered in nature, utilizing wind and solar power in combination as a source of energy and propulsion, alongside the ship’s main engine to reduce harmful emissions and lower fuel consumption. Usually, an on-board solar power array is mounted on the sails on deck areas of the vessel.


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