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The tug of technology brings low-power vessels

LOS ANGELES - For all of its 21st-century advancements, the shipping industry drags a lot of old technology around.

LOS ANGELES - For all of its 21st-century advancements, the shipping industry drags a lot of old technology around.

Giant vessels are so sophisticated that they require only a handful of crew members. But the ships still burn a thick, dirty sludge called bunker fuel while at sea and slurp diesel to keep the lights and air conditioning running while in port.

Inefficient yard tractors and cranes guzzle fuel and spew exhaust as they stack containers. And tugboats, pound for pound the most powerful vessels on the water, waste most of that muscle idling or cruising.

Now, as seaports try to raise their environmental standards, some companies are finding business opportunities.

Foss Maritime Co. of Seattle, for instance, has developed the Prius of tugboats, which consumes less diesel and generates less pollution by using batteries for all the vessel's low-power needs. Foss calls it the world's first hybrid tug and expects to deliver it to the Port of Los Angeles early next year.

The stakes are high, said William Lyte, cofounder of Technoplex Group in Los Angeles, a consulting company that helps entrepreneurs market new technology.

"The ports have about $5 billion in expansion projects they want to do, and they can't do it without mitigating the impact of pollution. Green systems will have to be in place to get these projects approved," Lyte said. "Companies from all over the world will be trying to sell that kind of technology here, so California businesses have to be prepared to compete."

Those companies will discover what Foss learned. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest cargo container ports in the nation, are willing to serve as testing grounds, business incubators and venture capitalists. About $1.35 million in development costs for the Foss hybrid tug came from the two ports and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"We asked for help to offset the increased capital costs of doing this," said Susan Hayman, vice president of environmental and corporate development for Foss. "Partnerships are supposed to help jump-start new ideas, and this one is working exactly the way it was supposed to."