The amount of fuel carried on a container ship varies based on the engine capacity and size of the ship, which themselves are a function of the particular trading route the ship operates in and the optimal speed of the ship’s engine.
One of the largest container ships to call on the U.S., the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, carries approximately 4.5 million gallons of fuel oil. Ship fuel capacity is generally converted to volumetric measurement. The equivalent on the Ben Franklin would be close to 16,000 cubic meters.
The CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin is considered an ultra-large container ship, as it can carry the equivalent of 18,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in containers. Ultra-large container ships are more frequently used to bring goods from Asia to Europe.
Container ships that can go through the old Panama Canal locks are called Panamax ships and can generally hold up to 5,000 TEUs. Those vessels typically hold between 1.5 million and 2 million gallons of fuel.
Many container ships that call on the U.S. now are considered post-Panamax or New Panamax, named so because they are larger and can go through the newer, larger locks on the Panama Canal. Those ships are generally in the 8,000- to 14,000-TEU range. Ships in that size range can carry between 2.5 million and 3.5 million gallons of fuel.
The amount of fuel actually be used on a sailing depends primarily on the ship’s speed. Most ship engines have been designed for top speeds ranging between 20 and 25 knots per hour, which is between 23 and 28 miles per hour. A Panamax container ship can consume 63,000 gallons of marine fuel per day at that speed.
Fuel use drops sharply as speeds decrease. A container ship can decrease fuel use close to one-third if it drops its speed 10%.
Since the 2008-2009 recession, major carriers have reduced ship speeds to 19 mph through slow steaming. Slow steaming decreases the amount of fuel consumption on each voyage. But the trade-off is that carriers need to increase the number or size of ships on a particular route to maintain schedules.