I have written a couple of blogs on the resurrection of wind power as a method of powering cargo ships of the future. It seems like a throwback to previous centuries, but the proponents say that wind power can provide a significant contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of commercial shipping. It was thus refreshing to read that a cargo ship of significant size has already taken to the seas (see picture above).
A cargo ship fitted with giant, rigid, British-designed, sails, has set out on its maiden voyage. Shipping firm Cargill, which has chartered the vessel, hopes the technology will help the industry chart a course towards a greener future. The “WindWing” sails are designed to cut fuel consumption, and help reduce carbon emissions from commercial vessels, which are currently estimated to contribute 2.1% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
The maiden voyage of the Pyxis Ocean, from China to Brazil, will provide the first real-world test of the “WindWings” design – and an opportunity to assess whether a return to the traditional way of propelling ships could be the way forward for moving cargo at sea.
Folded down when the ship is in port, the wings are opened out when it is in open water. They stand 123ft (37.5m) tall, and are built of the same material as wind turbines, to make them durable. This will enable the vessel to be blown along by the wind, rather than rely solely on its engine, which could eventually reduce a cargo ship’s lifetime emissions by 30%.
Jan Dieleman, president of Cargill Ocean Transportation, said the industry was on a “journey to decarbonise”. He admitted there was “no silver bullet” – but said this technology demonstrated how fast things were changing. “Five, six years ago, if you would ask people in shipping about decarbonisng, they would say ‘well, it’s going to be very difficult, I don’t see this happening any time soon’. Five years later, I think the narrative has changed completely and everybody is really convinced that they need to do their part – everybody is just struggling a little on how we’re going to do this. That’s why we’ve taken the role as one of the larger players to underwrite some of the risk, and try things, and take the industry forward.”
The Pyxis Ocean will take an estimated six weeks to reach its destination – but the technology it is using has its origins in something much faster. It was developed by UK firm BAR Technologies, which was spun out of Sir Ben Ainslie’s 2017 America’s Cup team, a competition sometimes called the “Formula One of the seas”.
“This is one of the most slow-moving projects we’ve done, but without doubt with the biggest impact for the planet,” said its head, John Cooper – who used to work for Formula One team McLaren. He thinks this voyage will be a turning point for the maritime industry. “I do predict, by 2025, half the new-build ships will be ordered with wind propulsion. The reason I’m so confident is our savings, which is one-and-a-half tonnes of fuel per day per sail. Placing four wings on a vessel, that’s six tonnes of fuel saved, and 20 tonnes of CO2 saved – per day. The numbers are massive.”
Experts say wind power is a promising area to explore, as the shipping industry tries to reduce the estimated 837 million tonnes of CO2 it produces each year. In July it agreed to reduce planet-warming gases to net-zero “by or around 2050” – a pledge critics said was toothless.
“Wind power can make a big difference,” says Dr Simon Bullock, shipping researcher at the Tyndall Centre, at the University of Manchester. He said new cleaner fuels will take time to emerge “so we have to throw everything at operational measures on existing ships – like retrofitting vessels with sails, kites and rotors”.
John Cooper, of BAR Technologies, is bullish, saying the future for wind wings is “very rosy.” He also admits he takes a certain satisfaction in the idea of the industry returning to its origins. “The engineers always hate it, but I always say it’s back to the future. The invention of big combustion engines destroyed the trade routes and the sailing routes, and now we’re going to try to reverse that trend, just a bit.”
I can only applaud.