Shipping turns to high-tech wind power

Shipping groups are testing high-tech sails to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. We look at how this new approach to an old technology could help the industry towards its goal of 50% emissions reduction by 2050.


August 24, 2023

  • BAR Technologies said its high-tech ‘sails’ boost fuel efficiency by 30%
  • Mitsubishi and Cargill have installed WindWings on a container ship
  • Other methods to decarbonise shipping include greener transport fuels

People have been using wind to power boats for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, the use of sails with rigging systems is thought to have originated around 6,000 years ago. Of course, this technology has long since been overtaken in the global shipping sector, where container ships are powered by engines, not sails.

But is wind the future of shipping once more?

On Monday, marine engineering company BAR Technologies and Japanese group Mitsubishi Corporation unveiled a container ship that is using wind power to aid its propulsion. The Pyxis Ocean has been retrofitted with BAR’s WindWings technology, which act as high-tech sails that use the wind to improve vessels’ fuel efficiency by 30%. Yara Marine Technologies acted as industrialisation partner.

Food producer Cargill has chartered the Pyxis Ocean, and has said WindWings could play an important role in supporting decarbonisation in the shipping industry. BAR Technologies has co-funded its research in WindWings with the European Union’s greener shipping initiative CHEK Horizon 2020; and is set to monitor performance of the technology in the coming months to refine its design and operations.

Bernoulli benefits

The large wing sails of WindWings are 37.5 metres tall each, and can be fitted to the deck of either an existing or new-build cargo ships. Their curved three-panel design takes advantage of the Bernoulli principle: spreading out the air in front of the ‘sails’ leads to a decrease in air pressure in front of the sail, while concentrating the wind in the sails increases the pressure behind them. This creates lift that helps the ship to move faster – and is the same principle that is used to make wind turbines turn.

BAR Technologies said the system has two key benefits: first, it uses wind power to help move the ship meaning that less fuel is needed; and second, it helps the ship to travel in a direction that takes most advantage of the surrounding wind conditions, which again improves efficiency. The firm said it could install three or four WindWings on the most common vessel sizes, and would work on new solutions in the coming years.

The WindWings themselves can stow flat when they are not needed or would be in the way, such as when a ship is docked.

John Cooper, chief executive at BAR Technologies, said “innovation must come to the fore” if international shipping is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The International Maritime Organisation has set a goal for the shipping industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030 and 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels, and Cooper said making use of wind was an important part of the solution.

“Wind is a near marginal cost-free fuel and the opportunity for reducing emissions, alongside significant efficiency gains in vessel operating costs, is substantial,” he said. Cooper said WindWings could save 1.5 tonnes of fuel each per day, and this potential was even greater on transocean routes.

BAR Technologies and Yara are set to produce hundreds of WindWings in the next four years, both in the fleets of early adopters like Cargill and in the industry at large.

This is not the only solution of its kind. In March, Alfa Laval and Wallenius-backed joint venture Oceanbird installed a land-based prototype of its Wing 560 project at the Oresund DryDocks shipyard in Sweden. The goal is to install the system on an existing vessel in mid-2024 as part of the EU-funded Orcelle Horizon project.

In addition, Japanese shipping group Mitsui OSK Lines and utility Tohoku Electric Power last October announced the start of operations for the world’s first coal ship, using its Wind Challenger technology; and French start-up Zéphyr & Borée launched its sail-powered cargo ship Canopée.

These high-tech sails are not the only answer to make shipping net zero. We will not see ships completely jettison engines. However, these sails can play an important role in making shipping ‘greener’, alongside the increased use of environmentally-friendly fuels, including those derived from green hydrogen, and other inventions to improve cargo ships’ fuel efficiency, such as more hydrodynamic hulls.

The rest of this year will provide vital insights about how big a role these new wind-powered technologies can play in shipping. But this shows that moves are afoot to make container ships ‘greener’, both inside and outside the fuel tank.

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