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Can Cargo Ships Use Wind Power to Go Green?

With the global climate crisis taking center stage in recent years, world leaders and scientists are looking for any possible option to slow emissions.
Can Cargo Ships Use Wind Power to Go Green?

One industry, in particular, transportation and commerce, has a major impact on our carbon footprint. From fleets of electric cars and buses to biodiesel engines, unique solutions are being implemented to go green.While replacing long-haul trucks with electric vehicles is one thing, swapping out supersized cargo ships with cleaner alternatives is a much taller order. There aren't many environmentally friendly ways to power the ships based on their size, let alone the vast distances they need to cover.This complex problem may have a simple and natural solution, harnessing the power of the wind. The force that has powered ships for centuries may be the best option for the future of global commerce.

Cargo Ships and Global Trade

It may come as a surprise to some that over 90% of global trade is done by sea, with the majority being transported on massive cargo ships. The market for container shipping is estimated to be worth nearly 10 billion USD. It is impossible to underestimate the impact and need for these ships on a daily basis.These ships need to cover mind-boggling distances to fulfill trade orders, with some traveling up to 180,000 miles in a single year. This haul can require millions of gallons of fuel to complete. Couple this with the fact that there are over 5,000 supersized cargo ships in use today and scale of the operation becomes hard to miss.

The cargo ships vary in size from Panamax vessels which are about 1,000 feet long and can hold up to 5,000 containers to the Ultra Large Container Vessel which extends to over 1,200 feet long and carries nearly 14,000 containers. In order to drive these mammoths the propellers require massive diesel combustion engines. These engines utilize heavy bunker fuel, which is a type of petroleum that releases high levels of carbon into the atmosphere.

Wind Power and Cargo Ships

From the massive scale of the shipping industry to the fuel needed to power the vessels, it is clear to see the environmental impacts at stake. It is estimated that these ships account for nearly 3% of the global carbon footprint and this portion is expected to increase without drastic intervention.The solution is not as simple as replacing the engines with fully electric ones either. Electric car engines are tiny compared to multi-story cargo ship ones. While it is possible for cargo ships to run on electricity, the only engines powerful enough are hybrid ones that still produce large-scale emissions.

This leaves fewer options for green energy in the industry, causing manufacturers to look for an alternative such as wind power. While it seems unlikely, sailors have been relying on the wind for generations and scientists believe modern technology can adapt it to the massive scale of the cargo ships.Wind propulsion is actually already commonly used in the shipping industry. During stretches of a vessel's journey with strong gusts, the captain can power down the engine and rely on the wind to coast ahead. However, the problem becomes being able to travel through areas without high wind speed in a timely manner.Enter a Swedish shipping manufacturer called Wallenius Maritime AB and their peculiar-looking ship called the Oceanbird.

The vessel's design clocks in at over 650 feet long with the ability to carry over 7,000 carloads. The main difference between the Oceanbird and a normal cargo ship: 5 massive sails that tower from its main deck.These aluminum and steel sails will rise almost 100 feet above the deck to provide wind power for the massive ship. These are coupled with biofuel engines if the wind speed is low or the ship is running behind schedule and needs a boost. Most importantly, the Oceanbird is expected to produce 90% fewer carbon emissions compared to a comparable cargo ship.Cargo ships and the transportation industry as a whole will need drastic changes in order to curb their carbon emissions. These changes can come through the means of technological advances or, in the case of the Oceanbird, a simple and centuries-proven method.

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