Hybrid Cargo Ships Could Reduce Fuel Consumption By 30%

Human beings have recognized the value of wind power for many centuries. Utilizing sails to capture the wind and travel along the surface of the sea in boats was a technological advancement that allowed humans to explore the seven continents of the world long before they ever dreamed of combustion engines.

Although it’s an ancient technology, there are some who believe fitting modern cargo ships with sails could actually help slash fuel consumption in the global shipping industry. The Wind Challenger project aims to prove that creating hybrid ships that employ both sails and engines could reduce annual fuel consumption of the shipping industry by about 30 percent on average.

Wind Challenger Project

image via University of Tokyo/DiginfoTV

A model of the UT Wind Challenger was on display at the recent Sea Japan trade show in Tokyo. As the miniature model demonstrates, the vessel would have giant telescoping sails that rise above the deck when wind conditions are good. “The sails have a curved surface, and they need to be hollow, so they can expand and contract,” said University of Tokyo professor Kiyoshi Uzawa (see the full video interview below). “So they don’t use canvas, like conventional sails. Instead, they use aluminum and Fibre-reinforced plastic, which makes them rigid. In other words, with this concept, a ship has wings, like an aircraft.

Each sail could be individually positioned so that it would maximize energy provided by ocean winds. Also, each telescoping sail would be made of five separate parts, so it can be contracted when the ship is at anchor or during rough weather conditions. Computer simulations and wind-tunnel tests using scale models suggest this method would be effective at saving energy, especially when there are crosswinds, the developers say.

Researchers acknowledge that the sails will be pricey, approximately $2.5 million each, but fuel cost savings would allow companies to recover this investment in between five and 10 years.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog