Giant Sails Actually Help Cargo Ships Save Fuel, And the Planet In Turn

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Shipping is not a clean business. The global economy is fueled by trade, and much of that trade involves hauling product from point A to point B. A great deal of that product goes by water. Shipping it around uses a great deal of fuel, and creates a great deal of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s bad for the environment, and it’s costly for shipping companies.

Any gain in efficiency can be an edge in this regard, and beneficial for the planet to boot. Now, it appears that good old fashioned sails  might just be the tool that companies need to clean up their fleets. And it’s not some theory—real world numbers back it up!

Where The Wind Takes You

Sea transport has been branded as a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 3% of the total. Shipping companies in turn are under increasing pressure to innovate and adapt, both for the good of the planet and their own coffers. It’s perhaps a small blessing that saving fuel and slashing emissions go hand in hand, and companies are desperate for any technology that can deliver on those goals.

Enter the WindWings, a revolutionary “wind assisted propulsion” concept developed by BAR Technologies. In partnership with ocean freight firm Cargill, these radical sails were installed aboard the Pyxis Ocean, a Kamsarmax bulk carrier chartered from Mitsubishi. These aren’t the canvas and rope constructs of yore . Instead, they’re a set of towering metal sails that stand 123 feet tall, designed to harness the wind’s power and propel the massive bulk carrier across the oceans.

The ingenuity of the WindWings lies in their adaptability. Unlike some sail designs of old, they can pivot. This allows the vessel to make the most of the wind without unduly compromising its intended route. The sails feature built-in sensors that allow them to adjust their thrust or drag in real time. The sails significantly reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The ship’s gas engines can be throttled down when a boost from the wind is available, saving precious fuel and cutting emissions. The sails auto-adjust to prevailing conditions, and can be raised and lowered by the crew as needed.

The sails tower high above the deck when in use. They can pivot as needed to make the most of prevailing winds. Credit: BusinessWire press release

The impact of this technology is not merely theoretical. The Pyxis Ocean’s journey through the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans from August 2023 to February 2024 showcased remarkable results. In optimal wind conditions out on a sea voyage, the savings hit 11 tonnes of fuel a day, offering a glimpse into the potential environmental benefits of widespread adoption of this technology. Overall, it’s estimated the sails could save roughly 3 tonnes of fuel per day over a year of operations. For a ship like the Pyxis Ocean, that’s roughly a 14 percent saving. As for emissions, the sails slash 11.2 tons a day of CO2 equivalent emissions on a well-t0-wake basis. That works out to around 2650 tons of CO2 a year, equivalent to removing 480 cars from the road.

With the WindWings equipped, the Pyxis Ocean is the most efficient Kamsarmax in Cargill’s fleet. Encouraged by the Pyxis Ocean’s performance, the conglomerate is exploring options to retrofit its extensive fleet with WindWings, signaling a significant shift towards sustainable shipping practices. The expectation is that further Kamsarmax vessels could run three wings, rather than two, for yet greater fuel savings.

The wings stand a full 123 feet (37.5 meters) tall. Credit: YouTube screenshot

This move would not just involve adopting the new technology but also about preparing global ports to accommodate these modern-day sailing ships. Every port has its own layout and equipment which must be able to work with ships equipped with WindWings without interfering or causing damage. The company notes it has engaged with over 250 ports to try and determine how ships with these devices can berth and load safely.

Fifty years ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking the age of sail was well and truly over. As always, technology can surprise us, and sometimes the old ideas become brand new again.

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