The Cargo Ships of the Future Will Be Powered By... Wind?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 22 2012 1:36 PM

In Radical Clean Tech Innovation, UK Firm Explores Idea of Wind-Powered Ships

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B9's "wind vessel" would harness wind energy via giant cloths attached to vertical beams sprouting from the ship's deck.

Image courtesy of B9 Energy Group

What will they dream up next? In what must surely rank among the most radical innovations to emerge from the clean-technology movement, the blog CleanTechnica informs us that a British firm has come up with an idea for a cargo ship that burns no fossil fuels. Instead, it runs primarily on—get this—wind.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Yes, this “futuristic” vessel, as CleanTechnica describes it, would sport giant vertical beams outfitted with humongous cloth wind-catching devices, known as “sails.” It must be said that these elaborate mechanisms look rather ungainly, and skeptics might wonder whether an energy source as unreliable as the breeze could ever actually power something as bulky as a seafaring craft.

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But just imagine if it worked! “If it proves successful,” the blog enthuses, “the new B9 cargo ship could usher in a new era of fossil fuel-free technology at a critical time for the shipping industry.”

The whole notion sounded almost too ingenious to be true. So I called up the good folks at B9 Energy Group to make sure this wasn’t some kind of a hoax.  

Not at all, managing director David Surplus assured me. Applying wind power to ships might sound far-fetched today, but if oil prices keep rising, it might well make economic sense in the not-too-distant future.

Indeed, B9’s project has already attracted interest from several potential clients—mainly shippers of another futuristic energy technology, called biomass, or “wood.” It turns out that several European countries, including the United Kingdom, are looking into pellets made from dead trees as a carbon-neutral source of electricity. This would require importing large amounts of the stuff from tree-rich locales like Russia, the Carolinas, and Brazil. Transporting it via wind-powered ships would keep the process environmentally friendly.

For the time being, these wind vessels will likely be limited to fairly short runs along particularly windy corridors, like between the Baltic states and Britain. Even so, Surplus admits there will be times when the wind just doesn’t cooperate. On those occasions, the ship will turn to biofuel-powered engines.

For anyone still dubious, B9’s website insists that “the key elements of the design solution are all readily available today and have been more than adequately proven.” Surplus told me that’s a reference to American venture capitalist Tom Perkins’ famous high-tech yacht The Maltese Falcon, whose rigid-sail design has proven seaworthy in cross-Atlantic voyages. As with that yacht, the B9 ship’s sails will be electronically controlled, requiring no rigging or manual operation to respond to changes in the wind.

Convinced at last that the concept might be viable, I was no longer surprised to learn from CleanTechnica that other companies besides B9 are already on the same tack. “If B9 wants to produce the world’s first fleet of commercially viable wind powered cargo ships, it better get a move on,” the story urges.

In fact, if Surplus himself is to be trusted, it had better get a time machine on. Believe it or not, Surplus informed me that the idea of wind-powered navigation has been around for centuries. Numerous civilizations, including the Ancient Sumerians, have employed it in various forms. Who knew?

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