The world’s very first wind-powered cargo ship has set off on its maiden voyage. It may lack the romanticism of the multi-masted clippers but it is still a significant achievement.
The Pyxis Ocean bulk ship from Mitsubishi has giant “wings”, ushering in a new era of sailing boats that carry cargo to their destinations on favorable tradewinds.
The sails were designed to work with the engine but engineers were delighted when the bulk carrier started to sail solely on wind power during the initial sea trials. She reached speeds of more than five-and-a half knots before the crew intervened and brought her under engine control.
Pyxis Ocean, chartered by Cargill, left Singapore last week en route for Paranagua port in Brazil. This was the first major test of the technology to determine if it will work in a real-life voyage.
If the project is successful, hundreds of ships will be retrofitted to include wings.
The engineers of BAR Technologies – a spinoff from Ben Ainslie Racing – the British team founded by the Olympic gold-medalist – designed the revolutionary fibreglass aerofoils that loom 123ft over the deck.
Digital projections suggest that they could reduce fuel consumption by up to three tonnes per ship per day, or about 30%. This would help decarbonize shipping without scrapping existing vessels.
Jan Dieleman is the president of Cargill Ocean transportation. He said, “I am super excited about it.” “We are finally at a point where the ship will be on the sea.
We need to know if the system will work. Is it safe to use? Will it work? Can the wings be folded? Does it work in port? Do we get the fuel savings then?
It’s a massive project. It’s never been done. You have to be prepared to take risks, otherwise it will remain a theoretical exercise. It’s time to show what is possible.”
Technology could alter current shipping routes. It would be more profitable to travel along the old trade routes that have favourable winds than the straight line most cargo ships take today.
Mr Dielman continued: “We have always assumed that the fastest way to get from A to B was to go straight there, but sometimes we need to diverge because the wind is stronger in some areas or the returns are better at other times of the year.
We need to change the way we think.
It hasn’t been easy to get to the first trip. Cargill first tried kites, but they did not work. They then joined forces with Portsmouth’s BAR Technologies to create the WindWings Project.
It hasn’t been a smooth ride either.
The team had to install cameras on the bridge to improve visibility because the large aerofoils were placed on the deck. The team also had to incorporate a tilting system that would allow the sails be stowed when dockside operations were taking place, passing under structures or during stormy sea conditions.
Engineers had to find a way to depower the wings in the event of a sudden thunderstorm, similar to how yachting sails can be made smaller for heavy weather.
Each wing can pivot and has three elements that are movable. These elements can be adjusted in order to exploit the power of the wind, just as an aircraft wing alters its shape when it takes off or lands.
The wind sensors detect the speed and angle of the wind, and automatically reorient the sail if there are unexpected gusts. The wings can be folded on the deck if the wind speed exceeds 40 knots.
Sensors can also detect how much the ship is leaning – or heaving – off its course, and the angle of the rudder.
John Cooper, CEO of BAR Technologies, said: “We don’t even have Ben at the table, so we need to make it automatic.”
If we see excessive rudder angles, leeway, or heel, the wings will start to take a shape that is not camber and push them in the direction of the wind.
Early sea trials have exceeded all expectations.
Mr Cooper continued: “My engineer, who normally is very serious, called me on the sea trials, giggling and explaining that they had free-sailed.
It was cool to sail without an engine and lift the anchor.
“And we have another one behind us with four sails.” We were over 5 1/2 knots when we stopped accelerating. That was not terminal speed, but it was a good thing we didn’t stop. And we had a wind of 18 knots, not the strongest. So we know that we can free sail pretty well.”
The entire project was tested in a “digital replica” on a computer, before the wings were made by Yara Marine Technologies.
The team plans to test the wings if the Pyxis ocean’s journey is successful. A Newcastlemax bulk ship is one of the largest cargo ships in the world, used to transport grain, coal, iron ore and other commodities across the oceans.