A North Sea ferry has already successfully trialled the technology ©Norsepower Oy Ltd
A North Sea ferry has already successfully trialled the technology ©Norsepower Oy Ltd

Shippers look to sails to cut fuel costs

The world's biggest shipping company is harnessing the power of the wind to cut fuel usage by introducing sails to its fleet. 

Maersk will attach two experimental high-tech sails onto one of its tankers as part of a pilot testing their efficiency and useability. These modern sails, which are 30m high spinning drums, could reduce average fuel consumption by 7-10% on global shipping routes, its developers say. 

They will be retrofitted to a 109,000-deadweight tonne product tanker in the first half of next year and testing at sea will start in 2019.

Called Flettner rotors, the spinning sails work by accelerating the flow of air on one side to creating pressure imbalance that propels the ship forward ­­– the same principle that causes a ball to curve in the air when spin is applied to it. The technology is not new and was first demonstrated by Anton Flettner in 1924.

The Finnish firm Norsepower, which is developing the sails that will be attached to Maersk’s ship, says its rotors, made of lightweight composite materials, are 10 times more efficient than traditional sails. They allow a tanker to throttle back its engines without affecting scheduling.

Norsepower has already successfully trialled the rotors on smaller North Sea vessels run by shipping company Bore.

The Sovereign of the Seas, capable of doing 22 Knots, was the fastest merchant sailing ship

Tuomas Riski, CEO of Norsepower, said he was optimistic the Maersk trials would open up the technology to a larger number of long-range product tankers, “paving the way for ship fuel efficiencies, and ultimately reducing emissions, including greenhouse gases”.

“As an abundant and free renewable energy, wind power has a role to play in supporting the shipping industry to reduce its fuel consumption and meet impending carbon reduction targets,” he said.

Windjammers, large cargo carrying sailing ships, were still used through the 1930s, and the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn, the Pamir, did so in 1949. The highest ever speed achieved by a merchant sailing ship was 22 knots, set by Sovereign of the Seas clipper (pictured) in 1854, a record that stood for 100 years.

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