Using the wind to propel boats is one of the oldest maritime technologies, but now it may be taking it to another level.
A cargo ship fitted with British-designed giant rigid sails has just set out on its maiden voyage.
Shipping company Cargill, which chartered the ship, hopes the technology will help steer the shipping industry toward a greener future.
WindWings sails are designed to reduce fuel consumption and therefore the carbon footprint of shipping.
The industry is responsible for about 2.1% of global carbon dioxide emissions (CO2).
The maiden voyage of the Pyxis Ocean from China to Brazil will provide the first real world test of the WindWings.
It is also an opportunity to assess whether a return to the traditional way of propelling ships might be the way forward for moving cargo at sea.
Folded up when the ship is in port, the sails open when in open water. They are 37.5 meters tall and are made of the same material as the wind turbines to make them durable.
Making such a boat propelled by the wind, instead of relying solely on its engine, could reduce emissions from a cargo ship by 30%.
According to the specialized website MarineTraffic.com, the Pyxis Ocean measures 229 meters in length and weighs more than 43,000 tons.
Jan Dieleman, president of Cargill Ocean Transportation, said the industry was in a “journey towards decarbonization”. He acknowledged that there is no magic formula to achieve this goal, but stressed that this type of technology is a sample of how fast things are changing.
“Five or six years ago, if you asked shipping people about decarbonisation, they said ‘well, it’s going to be very difficult, I don’t see this happening anytime soon,’” he told the BBC.
“Five years later, I think the narrative has completely changed. Everyone is really convinced that they must do their part; everyone is struggling a little bit about how we are going to do this,” Dieleman said.
“That’s why we’ve taken on this role as one of the biggest players, to take some of the risk, to try things out and move the industry forward,” he added.
This new technology that the Pyxis Ocean is using was developed by the British firm BAR Technologies, which originated in the team of Sir Ben Ainslie for the 2017 Copa América, a competition sometimes called the “Formula One of the seas”.
“This is one of the slowest projects we’ve ever done, but it’s certainly the one with the biggest impact for the planet,” its director, John Cooper, who used to work for the McLaren Formula One team, told the BBC.
Cooper thinks this voyage will be a turning point for the maritime industry. “By 2025 half of new-build ships will be wind-powered,” he said.
“The reason why I am so confident is our savings: one and a half tons of fuel per day. With four sails on a ship, six tons of fuel are saved per day, which is equivalent to a reduction of 20 tons of CO2. The numbers are impressive.”
The innovation comes from the UK, but candles are made in china. Cooper says that the lack of support from the British government to reduce the cost of imported steel prevents the company from making them in that country.
Experts say wind power is a promising area to explore. The shipping industry tries reduce 837 million tons of CO2 which is estimated to be produced each year.
In July they agreed to reduce planet-warming gases to zero “by 2050,” a promise critics said was unlikely.
“Wind power can make a big difference”said Simon Bullock, a researcher specializing in maritime cargo at the Tyndall Center at the University of Manchester.
He noted that new, cleaner fuels will take time to emerge “so we will have to do everything we can to take operational measures on existing ships, such as retrofitting existing ships to use sails and rotors.”
“As a last resort, we need zero carbon fuels in all ships, but in the meantime, it’s imperative to make every trip as efficient as possible. Slower speeds are also a fundamental part of the solution,” he told the BBC.
Stephen Gordon, managing director of marine data firm Clarksons Research, agreed that wind-related technologies were “gaining some traction.”
“The number of ships using this technology has doubled in the last 12 months,” he explained.
“But the number is not high. In the international transport fleet, together with the construction requests for more than 110,000 new vessels, we have less than 100 that have wind-assisted technology today“.
Even if that number increases drastically, the Wind technology may not be suitable for all vessels because, for example, it is not viable in cases where the sails interfere with the unloading of containers.
“The shipping industry does not yet have a clear path to decarbonisation and given the scale, challenge and diversity of the global shipping fleet it is unlikely that there will be a single solution for the industry in the short to medium term,” says Gordon.
However, John Cooper of BAR Technologies is more optimistic, saying that the Future of WindWings is “very promising”. He also admits that he takes some satisfaction in the idea of the industry going back to its roots.
“Engineers hate it, but I always say it’s a return to the future. The invention of the big combustion engines destroyed trade routes and shipping lanes and now we are going to try to reverse that trend, just a little bit,” he says.
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