Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Wind power with a high-tech twist could help ships burn less fuel

Commodities giant Cargill is testing a new kind of wind-harnessing device meant to slash fuel use and curb CO2 emissions from the world’s cargo ships.
By Maria Gallucci

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A red cargo ship with two white rectangular metal sails travels across the open ocean
The Pyxis Ocean sets sail for its maiden voyage retrofitted with WindWings. (BAR Technologies)

A big red cargo ship fitted with steel and composite-glass wings” has set sail on its maiden voyage from China to Brazil.

The Pyxis Ocean, a 750-foot-long bulk carrier, is the first vessel to deploy WindWings, which can stand up to 123 feet tall and are made from the same durable material as wind turbines. The prototype devices could potentially curb the ship’s diesel fuel consumption — and its resulting greenhouse gas emissions — by roughly one-fifth.

Cargill, the giant U.S. commodities group, announced the voyage on Monday, after the Pyxis Ocean completed its first leg across the South China Sea from Shanghai to Singapore. Cargill is chartering the vessel, which can carry up to 81,000 metric tons of grain, corn and other food products around the world.

The large rectangular wings generally work like traditional canvas sails: by harnessing wind to propel the vessel and lessen the workload of the diesel engines. But instead of sailors raising or furling sails, the rigid WindWings mechanically rotate and spin. They also fold down while at port and lift back up while at sea.

Wind power is making a comeback within the global shipping industry as companies look to reduce and replace their use of dirty diesel fuel. This week’s voyage is the latest example of shipowners and multinational customers retrofitting vessels with high-tech versions of an ancient clean-energy technology — including Airseas’ towing kite, Norsepower’s spinning rotor sails and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines’ telescoping hard sail.

At Cargill, we have a responsibility to pioneer decarbonizing solutions across all our supply chains to meet our customer’s needs, and the needs of the planet,” Jan Dieleman, president of Cargill’s ocean transportation business, said in a statement.

Two workers in white uniforms and hard hats walk beneath a giant rectangular wing on its side
WindWings are retrofitted on Pyxis Ocean at the Cosco shipyard in Shanghai. (BAR Technologies)

Bulk carriers, container ships and other oceangoing vessels burn hundreds of millions of tons of fossil fuels every year to carry trillions of dollars’ worth of goods across the ocean. As a result, international shipping contributes around 3 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions — a figure that’s expected to climb as more oil-guzzling ships make more voyages in the coming years.

Last month, the United Nations agency that governs global shipping set stricter climate goals for the industry. Members of the International Maritime Organization called for curbing emissions by at least 70 percent by 2040, and for reaching net-zero emissions by or around” 2050. Countries also agreed to have 5 to 10 percent of shipping’s energy use come from zero or near-zero” emissions fuels and technologies by 2030.

While critics say the new rules don’t go far enough to curb the industry’s contribution to climate change, virtually everyone agrees that decarbonizing shipping is a monumental challenge. Switching to alternative fuels — including methanol or ammonia made from renewable energy — will require updating ship designs, building new fuel supply systems and a litany of logistical and financial hurdles.

Harnessing wind power could allow existing ships to begin ditching diesel without upending existing operations.

The Pyxis Ocean, a six-year-old vessel owned by Mitsubishi Corp., was recently equipped with wing sails at a shipyard in Shanghai. British firm BAR Technologies designed the WindWings, which the Norwegian company Yara Marine Technologies manufactured.

The top deck of a bulk cargo ship is shown with two rectangular sails standing tall
The Pyxis Ocean undergoes a retrofit in Shanghai. (BAR Technologies)

Today is the culmination of years of pioneering research,” John Cooper, CEO of BAR Technologies, said in a statement. The project received funding through a European Union–led initiative to decarbonize shipping by enabling key technologies.

A variety of factors will determine how much fuel ships with WindWings can actually save, and thus how much emissions they’ll avoid releasing, including where the vessels are sailing, how many devices can fit on their deck, and how favorable the wind and weather conditions are. BAR estimates that, on an average global route, the technology can save 1.5 metric tons of oil-based fuel per WindWing per day.

Cargill and BAR said they will closely monitor the WindWings’ performance over the coming months to improve design, operation and performance. The goal of the trial voyage is to inform the scale-up and adoption of wing sails across Cargill’s fleet of bulker carriers and the broader industry. BAR said it is already planning to build hundreds of its 21st-century sails over the next four years and is also researching building new vessels with different hydrodynamic forms.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.