Wind-powered ships are making a comeback

Updated: Apr 10

Green Economy means, amongst many things, using renewable energies. What about bringing wind-powered ships back to transport goods?

Sailing ship

For millennia, sailing ships have been used to transport goods and people from A to B across the waters.

This worked very well in the case of favourable winds, less so if the winds blew in direction of travel, and not at all in a lull.

The advent of first steam engines and later internal combustion engines put an end to such problems.

In 2014, maritime transport accounted for 80% of the world's merchandise trade.[1]

According to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), maritime transport contributed 2.2% to the global CO2 emissions and predicts this number to rise significantly as maritime transport is expected to increase significantly.[2]

In addition to its contribution to global warming, shipping diesel is very dirty and (unlike the diesel used to drive cars) contains large amounts of sulfur, an element whose combustion products are attributed to causing or compounding problems ranging from acid rain to asthma.

All these problems have caused some people to think of using the power of winds for cargo ships again.

Obviously, modern sailing ships will not look exactly like the old clippers did and, thanks to modern technology they won't need crews of dozens of sailors to operate the sails.

A team of researchers at the University of Tokyo in collaboration with Japanese shipping companies have started a project that is expected to result in a full scale prototype in 2021.[3]

It looks like this:

The biggest advantage of using the wind to move the ship is twofold:

  • the wind is free as well as clean, and

  • thanks to big weather data it can be predicted with reasonable accuracy.

The biggest disadvantage of sails is that they are only realistically feasible on ships transporting gases (such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG)), liquids, or dry bulk cargo (such as sand or cement).

Container ships simply have got no space for the sails.

There is one idea however, that aims to solve even this problem: The Norwegian company Lade AS is designing ships whose hull serves as the sail.[4]

Think of it as a container ship with a wall around all the containers on deck and the force exerted by the wind on this large surface being used to propel the vessel forward.

At present, this is but a concept, yet it might see the light of day.

None of this is going to replace combustion engines in the shipping world overnight.
Maritime cargo is run on tight schedules and while the wind may be predictable to a large extent there are still vagaries which could derail the international shipping clockwork.
But: Every little helps!

[1] (last accessed 2020.10.07)

[2] (last accessed 2020.10.07)

[3] (last accessed 2020.10.07)

[4] (last accessed 2020.10.17)