Giant inflatable sails could make shipping greener
Today, they are making a comeback as the shipping industry seeks to decarbonize. But the new sails are nothing like those of the past. Tall, white and puffy, giant inflatable sails designed by tire maker Michelin look more like the Michelin man – the company’s mascot – than a traditional fabric sail. Made from a flexible material the company wouldn’t reveal, the sails can inflate or deflate with the push of a button. No crew is required to rig them, and they automatically rotate to pick up the wind, equipped with sensors that measure wind direction and speed.
Intended for installation on existing freighters, the sails will operate alongside the ship’s engine, reducing its overall dependence on fossil fuels. Michelin estimates that fuel savings could reach 20%.
“Our objective is to contribute to the decarbonisation of maritime transport”, specifies Benoit Dailliez, project manager of the company’s sailing and sailing mobility project (WISAMO). He adds that as regulations on carbon emissions increase, so will the demand for green alternatives.
Wings not sails
Thanks to their size, material and automation, modern sails are able to harness more wind than those of the past. In fact, they look more like an airplane wing than a conventional fabric wing – designed to generate lift force perpendicular to the wind direction with as little aerodynamic drag as possible.
“These are not sails, these are wings,” Dailliez told CNN. He says that the fact that they can be installed on existing merchant ships makes the technology attractive to the mass shipping market, adding that this is also where the most significant carbon savings are found, as the ships older people tend to be the worst polluters.
However, Michelin’s concept is still a long way from materializing. The company has not disclosed whether it has secured any commercial clients and, so far, has only tested a 1,000-square-foot version of the design, hoisting it onto a 40-foot yacht in Lake Geneva. Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Although it was a success, says Dailliez, it is a world far from bulk carriers or tankers over 500 feet. He hopes the company will test a larger version – between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet – on a freighter in 2022 before embarking on full-scale production.
Based on the same theory as the Michelin design but made of steel, the 150-foot-tall structures not only function like an airplane wing, but look like it as well. Instead of inflating or deflating, the wings stand upright on the deck of a freighter and can fold flat to pass under a bridge or enter a port.
BAR Technologies’ “WindWings” (seen here in a render) could enter the water by 2022, as part of a partnership with Cargill.
Courtesy of BAR Technologies
Unlike Oceanbird, which relies solely on the wind, BAR Technologies’ wings will work alongside the engine, increasing the vessel’s fuel consumption by 25-30%.
BAR Technologies CEO John Cooper explains that 100% wind power works for routes with guaranteed wind or in situations where it is acceptable for a ship to be a few days late. But he says that’s not an option for most commercial shipments.
While the company won’t disclose the price at which it will sell the fenders, Cooper says it’s more about return on investment than price.
However, the shipping industry may need a bigger stimulus to convince them to adopt these technologies, says Tristan Smith, associate professor and head of the Shipping Group at University College London.
Wind propulsion has long been seen as an option to reduce the dependence of marine transportation on diesel, he explains. Flettner rotors, a technology dating back to the 1920s, consisting of vertical cylinders that rotate with the wind and create forward motion, have been deployed on freighters, such as the Timberwolf (formerly the Maersk Pelican) tanker and the m / v Afros, generating fuel savings of over 10%. Giant kites that fly past the ship and tow it on a rope have also been offered, with German company SkySails saying it could save an average of 10 to 15 percent in fuel each year.
But despite these savings, technology adoption has not been widespread. “There’s a decade of (wind propulsion) designs that look good, that save money, that are in theory profitable, that didn’t materialize,” Smith told CNN. “It’s not because they don’t save fuel, but clearly because they don’t save enough fuel compared to their cost.”
Another sticking point is that the charterer, and not the owner, usually pays for the fuel. This means that the owner has less incentive to shell out for fuel saving technology and, similarly, the charterer may not lease the vessel long enough to see the return on investment.
Cooper recognizes this “conundrum” but believes that as demand increases, charterers will be willing to pay higher charter rates because they will spend less on fuel.
“We are basically missing an opportunity to reduce thousands and millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions because regulators are not making the right decisions right now,” he says.
Cooper of BAR Technologies is more optimistic. “Wind is free fuel,” he says, and as some responsible and climate-conscious companies start installing wing sails, the price of the technology will drop, increasing accessibility and further strengthening the analysis of profitability.
“Everyone will start doing the right thing, rather than being legislated to do the right thing,” he says.