If fossil energy stakeholders plan to enjoy that “high-carbon lifestyle” much longer, they better act fast. Among the latest developments in global economic decarbonization is the Seawing, a new retrofit for cargo vessels that applies centuries-old sailing ship technology to harvest wind power from the open ocean, aimed at cutting emissions by 20%.
Zero Emission Wind Power Left The Global Shipping Industry…
The global shipping industry used to operate on a zero-emission basis until the 19th century, when steam-driven propulsion replaced wind power. The steam era didn’t last long. Marine fuel oil came into the picture in the 1930s and nudged steam almost completely aside by the end of the 20th century.
As described by Maritime Insight, marine fuel oil refers to crude oils with a density at 15ºC higher than 900 kg/m3, fuel oils with a density at 15ºC higher than 900 kg/ m3 (or a kinematic viscosity at 50oC higher than 180 mm2/s), or bitumen, tar, and their emulsions.
If that sounds nasty, it is. The maritime industry share of global carbon emissions currently stands at about 3%, and a winning strategy for decarbonization has yet to emerge. Last February, the American Chemistry Society’s C&EN publication recapped the state of affairs:
“Large multinational organizations aim to cut emissions from shipping by 50% in the coming years, but the path to decarbonizing maritime transport is unclear. Experts are evaluating various methods to clean up ship emissions and are considering alternative fuels, including liquefied natural gas, hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol. All have pros and cons in terms of emissions, safety, feasibility, and cost.”
…And, Zero Emission Wind Power Returns
Apparently, part of the answer has been staring everyone in the face this whole time. A number of startups have been pitching various kinds of sails to capture wind power for cargo ships in recent years, and one of them is Airseas, a French startup under the Airbus umbrella.
The Seawing first came across the CleanTechnica radar in 2018, when Airaseas introduced its signature parafoil sail. Parafoils are canopy-type sails that operate without the need for a fixed mast. Instead, they can be flown at a high distance above the ship, like a kite, to capture winds that are stronger and steadier.
The Seawing is designed to reach a height of 200 meters for an average cut of 20% in fuel and carbon emissions. The practical range goes down to a respectable floor of 10% savings, on up to an impressive ceiling of 40%.
A High Tech Twist On Old Technology
That’s not quite as simple as it sounds. The Seawing is designed to fly in a figure-eight pattern that harvests 10 times the available wind power. Engineers at Airseas applied their aerospace know-how to design a fully automatic flight system for the sail.
In December of 2021, Airseas announced that it applied its new Seawing sail to a Ro-Ro (roll on, roll off) ship for wheeled cargo, commissioned by Airbus. The retrofit took just two days. Airseas also provided the Seawing wind power retrofit for two Capesize bulk cargo ships under the leading shipper K Line (Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, Ltd.).
Last summer, K Line also added wind power to three of its smaller “post-Panamax” bulk cargo ships, but that was just the tip of the news iceberg. K Line also inked a deal with Airseas to merge its high-tech “Kawasaki Integrated Maritime Solutions” shipboard systems with the Seawing control system. The aim is to harvest the most wind power possible for different types of ships and different shipping routes.
“K LINE and AIRSEAS have signed a technology development agreement for the effective utilization of the traction power from the “Seawing” based on renewable energy,” K Line explained in a press release.
Scaling Up For The Sailing Ships Of The Future
Apparently, this is all just for starters. Airseas and the EU have co-funded a new project called Seawing4Blue, aimed at scaling up the use of wind power as a significant, near-term pathway for maritime decarbonization.
If all goes according to plan, the Seawing4Blue project will have a serial version of the Seawing in production by 2024, towards a goal of 1,000 Seawings in operation by 2030.
“The serial product, developed within SEAWING4BLUE, will be an integrated system composed of a 1000 square meters kite wing controlled by a pod, a deck structure including a 36 meters high mast to deploy the wing and a storage tank, and software technologies to control the flight automatically (digital twin technology) and to help the crew in routing the ship (ecorouting software),” Airseas explains.
More Renewable Energy To Sail The Seven Seas
None of these are complete solutions, but Airseas makes the case that wind power can help accelerate decarbonization in the critical near-term period, before the end of the decade.
All else being equal, wind power could also continue to help cut fuel costs for the shipping industry under a low-carbon scenario in future years.
Battery-electric ships and solar power are also in the mix.
The Onshoring Solution
Of course, one sure way to cut emissions in the overseas shipping industry is to stop ferrying so much stuff around the world.
That’s going to take some doing, considering the complex tangle of global supply chains.
Still, signs of an onshoring movement have been growing. The US solar industry, for example, is finally beginning to re-grow its domestic footprint after a 40-year hiatus.
Another emerging factor is new recycling technology that could help provide manufacturers with decentralized, distributed sources of raw material for various goods.
If consumers would start buying less stuff, that might also help.
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Image: Courtesy of Airseas.
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