“If the world’s shipping fleet were a country, it would be the world’s sixth leading emitter of greenhouse gases. To reduce those emissions — and, not incidentally, to conserve expensive fossil fuels — cargo ship designers are now turning to the oldest source of power there is: the wind.“
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The new vessels, mainly still on drawing boards and in prototype, look nothing like the graceful schooners and galleons of centuries past. Last spring, for example, the University of Tokyo unveiled a model of its UT Wind Challenger at the Sea Japan trade show. It has nine masts, each 164 feet tall, with five rigid sails made of aluminum and fiber-reinforced plastic; the sails are hollow, designed to telescope into one another in rough weather or at anchor.
Then there is the 328-foot, 3,000-ton cargo carrier being designed by B9 Shipping (pronounced benign), part of the B9 Energy Group in Northern Ireland. Its three masts rise 180 feet, as tall as a 14-story building.
Powered by a combination of wind and a Rolls-Royce biogas engine, it is intended to operate with no fossil fuels.
A model of the B9 ship was tested last month at the University of Southampton in England. “The tests were promising,” said Diane Gilpin, a founder-director of B9 Shipping. “They validated the economic case for deploying a B9 ship on certain trading routes.”
The next step, she said, is to seek financing for a full-size ship to demonstrate the technology. It would cost $45 million and take three years to build.
Several factors are driving efforts like these. Effective this month, ships in North American waters are required to burn low-sulfur oil, which costs 60 percent more than bunker fuel. The United Nations’ International Maritime Organization is also phasing in restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions by commercial ships.
Meanwhile, the price of bunker fuel, which accounts for most of a vessel’s operating cost, has been rising steeply — 600 percent over the last 10 years.
Wind, of course, is cost- and emission-free. But none of the designs under consideration would replace a ship’s engine, only supplement it.
Nor is wind power practical for large vessels like container ships, which sail faster than 15 knots and need their deck space for cargo. But it is well suited for smaller, slower-moving ships, those in the 3,000-to-10,000-ton range — which accounts for 10,000 vessels, one-fifth of the world’s total cargo ships, and are an essential link in the global supply chain.
Still, wind-powered technology faces a steep development curve before the industry will be ready to embrace it.