Spinning sail technology is set to be rebooted


March 23, 2017

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The shipping industry is using innovative wind technology to help power vessels used for oil exploration. The irony is not lost on us.

This month, Danish shipping company Maersk and oil giant Royal Dutch Shell revealed plans to make tankers worldwide more environmentally friendly. They plan to fit ocean-going tankers with rotor sails. These would help to propel the ship because, when wind passes the spinning rotor sail, the air flow accelerates on one side and decelerates on the opposite side, creating a thrust force perpendicular to the wind direction.

In favourable wind conditions, each rotor sail can produce up to 3MW of power.

The rotor sails consist of rotating columns fixed to the deck of the ship, which are based on a 1926 invention by German engineer Anton Flettner. Back in the 1920s though, they failed to compete with the efficiency of diesel power.

Finnish company Norsepower has now specialised in developing modern, lightweight version of the 1920s model. Technology improvements and the rise of environmental regulations could now sign the favourable moment for the rotor sail to take off.

In this partnership, Shell is set to act as project coordinator, with Maersk providing the ships to test the technology as well as operational and technical insight. Norsepower will provide the rotor sails to be installed on Maersk tanker.

Fuel savings of up 10% are expected and new sails are set to be fitted during the first half of 2018 and then analysed at sea until the end of 2019.

This is interesting news for two main reasons.

It would help the international shipping industry to cut pollution. While other technologies have been already explored by the sector, including batteries and biofuels, rotor sails could be the first one with good chances to succeed, because wind is the only renewable energy available at large scale in the ocean. This could also open up new opportunities for firms in the wind supply chain to develop this type of technology, and find different uses for it.

We cannot shake the queasy feeling about wind being used to power ships in the oil sector – but if Shell can find a way to use this on its Borssele 3 & 4 schemes, all will be forgiven.

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