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Wind power is finally ready for its mainstream moment in the global shipping industry (image courtesy of Computed Wing Sail).

Clean Power

Cargo Ships Reclaim Wind Power With High Tech Rigid Sails

The return of wind power slips a much-needed dose of clean energy into the global shipping industry as it seeks to avoid an upward spiral of carbon emissions.

Canvas sails once powered the cargo ships that sailed the 7 seas, and now the modern day shipping industry is taking steps to reclaim its wind power heritage — with a high tech twist, that is. In the latest development, last week the French startup Zéphyr & Borée received validation for a new container ship decked out with 8 rigid sails engineered by the firm Computed Wing Sails.

This New Wind-Powered Ship Is No Small Potatoes

The new sails received approval in principle from the leading global certification firm Bureau Veritas, which has developed a new classification system for oceangoing wind propulsion systems.

BV certainly had its work cut out for it with the Zéphyr & Borée project. The ship is no demonstration-scale venture. It is a full sized, 185-meter (about 607 feet) cargo ship with a capacity of 1,800 TEU, which refers to the number of 20-foot containers it can hold.

That’s not nearly as big as the biggest cargo ships at sea today, which can easily top 20,000 TEU. However, it’s big enough to showcase how wind power can be scaled up to help decarbonize the global shipping industry.

High Tech Sails For More Wind Power

Zéphyr & Borée was founded in 2014 on a platform of shipping industry decarbonization, and it is casting a wide net in the wind power area.

The rigid wind power harvester designed by Computed Wing Sail is a thick, asymmetrical sail that resembles the wing of a glider. Depending on the wind conditions, it can fold down to hold a position half its height for optimal efficiency.

Zéphyr & Borée has also been working with the naval architecture firm VPLP, which has contributed its experience in designing rigid wing sails for racing yachts.

As described by Zéphyr & Borée, one challenge is to design a rigid sail that can be furled, meaning it can be folded into a more compact shape during rough weather.

The new sails also meet the challenge of minimizing crewing and training requirements.

“The control of the rigging does not require additional sailors, the settings are entirely automated and the structure meets the robustness and reliability imperatives required by maritime regulations and commercial ship activities,” Zéphyr & Borée explains.

How About Some Solar Power With Your Wind Power?

The idea of a rigid sail brings up the potential for adding on a layer of thin film solar panels. The Japanese firm Eco Marine Power introduced a patented rigid sail that doubled as as solar energy harvester back in 2011. Somewhere over the years, EMP separated the sails and the solar panels, which can be installed individually or as an integrated system.

By detaching the solar panels from the sails, EMP also gave the solar side more room to grow. EMP notes that its solar technology is lightweight and flexible, so it could be installed on awnings and other surfaces of a ship.

Earlier this year EMP received approval in principle from Nippon Kaiji Kyokai for its “Aquarius Marine Renewable Energy with EnergySail” solar and wind power combo.

EMP emphasizes that its clean power system can continue to generate electricity when the ship is at rest.  That’s a significant consideration in the context of the ongoing shipping bottleneck, which has left thousands of cargo ships waiting to dock while running their diesel engines.

New Shapes For Wind Power

Another interesting development to pop up is a cylindrical sail that resembles a smokestack, engineered by the firm Norsepower under the name Rotor Sail. The cylinder can be tilted down to allow for low bridges and other infrastructure, which opens up a broader array of shipping routes and destinations.

The Rotor Sail made its first appearance at CleanTechnica in 2015, when our friends over at Rocky Mountain Institute explained that the tubular design is an update of the Flettner rotor, a wind-powered device that spins within a cylinder.

“The rotor generates thrust for the same reason that a spinning baseball curves through the air after it’s thrown — the Magnus effect. When air moves across a rotating body, it exerts a force perpendicular to the direction of the air,” RMI explained.

All was quiet for a few years until 2019, when the tubular, tilt-able sails popped back onto the CleanTechnica radar in 2019. Norsepower has been awfully busy since then.

Among the recent developments is an agreement with the global mining and shipping giant Vale to outfit one of its “Valemax” Very Large Ore Carrier cargo ships with an array of 5 Rotor Sails.

Last month, Norsepower also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the global maritime technology firm Kongsberg Maritime.

The new agreement adds wind power to KM’s growing portfolio of decarbonization solutions for the shipping industry.

Oskar Levander, SVP Business Concepts for KM, explains:

“This co-operation with Norsepower is an additional step towards KM’s ambition to become the leading integrator of green shipping technology, such as auxiliary wind power, alternative fuels/energy sources and energy saving devices…Together we will offer support to shipowners and shipyards looking for the most efficient and effective ways of applying Rotor Sail technology, and collaborate on new ship designs to integrate these technologies and improve energy efficiency overall.”

Onward & Upward For The Decarbonized Shipping Industry Of The Future

Of course, if people would just stop buying so much stuff from faraway places, there wouldn’t be nearly as much carbon emissions from the the shipping industry. However, that’s not going to happen. In fact, the whole industry is headed in the wrong direction.

According to the International Marine Organization, the global shipping industry (including fishing) has improved its carbon intensity in recent years. Nevertheless, the industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions are already 90% higher than the benchmark year of 2008 and they are projected to keeping increasing by up to 130% in 2050.

Meanwhile, IMO hopes to cut emissions back down to 2008 levels by 2050. It appears that wind power will be part of the solution, though only as a means of reducing fuel consumption. It’s difficult to imagine a Valemax ship of 360 meters and 400 tons dead weight powered exclusively by the wind, but using wind power to reduce carbon emissions from marine fuel can make a significant difference.

Norsepower confirmed a savings of more than 8% on fuel for its Rotor Sail back in 2018, and the company anticipates a savings of up to 25% under some conditions.

Battery-electric technology will also play a role. Though today’s batteries might not be up to propelling a full sized cargo ship, Yara has just launched a modestly sized electric ship in Norway that will amplify its own emissions savings by replacing thousands of truck trips annually on local roads.

Zero emission hydrogen fuel cells are emerging as another decarbonizing option, at least for ferries and other smaller watercraft, but only to the extent that the global supply of green hydrogen continues to grow (the primary source of hydrogen today is natural gas, but alternative sources are emerging).

For larger craft, shipping industry stakeholders are beginning to dip into the green hydrogen-ammonia field, in which renewable ammonia can be produced by combining renewable hydrogen with nitrogen from ambient air. That’s a huge sustainability step up from the current state of the ammonia supply chain, which leans heavily on natural gas.

There being no such thing as a free lunch, the shipping industry will have to do something about nitrogen oxide emissions from burning ammonia in a combustion system, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Rigid sails provide wind power for cargo ship (courtesy of Computed Wing Sail).

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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