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Carlos Jahn: Sailing Back Into the Wind

Shipping goods by sea accounts for about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Ship designers like Norway’s Lade AS are turning to wind and natural gas technologies to cleanly power the future of the industry.


More than 200 years ago, the expression “sailing” started losing its original meaning in merchant transport.

Sailing ships were first replaced by the more versatile coal-powered steamships, whose black smoke has been preserved in countless pictures as a symbol of economic success and development. Later, heavy fuel oil replaced coal as the main energy source for ships, bringing logistical advantages for the shipping companies — but not much ecological improvements for the environment.

That’s about to change, with a wave approaching of more stringent requirements and regulations to contain the shipping industry’s ecologic footprint. Shipping actually emits much less CO2 per ton mile than trucking. But with 90 percent of the world’s goods being transported by sea, the emissions can add up quickly — accounting for about 3 percent of global greenhouse gases.

New rules requiring the use of low sulphur fuel, as well as the installation of new ballast water treatment systems to prevent the spread of invasive species, are estimated to cost the industry more than $500 billion over the next decade, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. That means every incremental increase in efficiency makes a big difference.

While the immediate need of the shipping industry is to find solutions to fulfill the upcoming regulations while meeting the market’s needs, the more fundamental challenge is to make shipping sustainable in the long run. This rethink has brought the industry back to its roots — back to the wind.

Nowadays, there are several innovative concepts of vessels using wind power again. Some rely on huge sails — modified and automated — others on Flettner Rotors, which convert the passing wind into a turning movement.

But there is nothing quite like VindskipTM. A ship that uses up to 60 percent less fuel and discharges up to 80 percent fewer pollutants — these numbers sound like the future. But this hybrid merchant vessel could soon make them a reality.

The VindskipTM, being developed by Norway’s Lade AS, has a hull — the body of the ship — that is shaped like a sail. The futuristic freighter is also equipped with a liquefied natural gas (LNG)-electric propulsion system. The eco-friendly hybrid uses its “sails” to create a vacuum that pulls the ship forward, and even allows it to benefit from headwinds. For tight maneuvers and low-wind areas, the LNG drive kicks in, and keeps the vessel at a cruise speed that maximizes the wind power use.

To find the best sailing route for the wind-induced drive, the Fraunhofer CML designed and programmed a customized weather-routing module, whose software combines navigational algorithms with data about wind and weather fed by satellite. Analyzing the data, the tool provides suggestions to the nautical officers on the bridge on the best course to maximize wind yield and minimize fuel consumption given prevailing and expected weather conditions.

While the planned launch of the VindskipTM isn’t until 2019, the results of a simulated test voyage between Japan and Chile showed that about three-quarters of the voyage was managed by wind only — resulting in a reduction in fuel consumption to about a third of cargo vessels of similar size. Because the remaining fuel consumed is LNG, which contains no sulfur, that will help shippers and carriers meet the new regulations — and benefit coral and other sea life impacted by the increasing acidity of the oceans.

In the voyage to discover more sustainable shipping solutions, the wind is once again pointing in the right direction.

(Top image: Copyright Lade AS)


Carlos Jahn is head of the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services and Director of the Institute for Maritime Logistics at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg.

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