Talk about back to the future: Could ships like the clipper ships of earlier centuries replace today’s giant cargo ships that rely on fossil fuels to transport aluminum and steel containers?
Ships powered by the wind of course hark back to ancient times. In the past decade or so, a number of small companies have been seeking to revive the use of sailing ships to transport freight as an alternative to cargo ships whose giant engines spew out 3-5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. If the global shipping fleet were a country, it would be the sixth-largest emitter in the world, says Diane Gilpin of B9 shipping. Her company is seeking to develop a coastal cargo ship that would use both massive sails made of carbon fibers and an engine running on bio-gas from food waste.
French company Transoceanic Wind Transport (TOWT) owns the Tres Hombres, a twin-masted, 32-meter brigantine that can hold 35 tons, five crew members and ten passengers. Tres Hombres first set sail from Amsterdam in 2009 and has shipped cargo ever since as one of a small fleet of sailing ships.
“It’s not some sort of adventurous poetic revival of 19th century technology, on the contrary it’s something that is definitely addressing energy transition at sea,” Guillaune Le Grand, TOWT’s founder — who holds a degree in Sustainable Development, Energy and Environment — emphasizes to the BBC.
We don’t think about it much, but large cargo ships provide us with many commodities, from cars to computers, that are mainstays of our day-to-day life. Studies have shown that large cargo ships emit twice as much soot as had been thought and efforts are underway to develop alternative fuels such as liquified natural gas (LNG). Cargo operators have also reduced the speed at which their freighters travel to below 15 knots (instead of 20 knots on average some ten years ago), to cut down on emissions. This practice is known as “slow steaming”; it is something shipping executives are not fond of, as it causes damage to the giant ships’ engines which were made to plow through the oceans at far faster speeds.
Others around the globe are searching for sustainable alternatives. In Vermont, a farmer, Erik Andrus has started the Vermont Sail Freight Project out of the belief that it is “not enough” to produce food sustainably. Instead of relying on “our overblown, corporation-dominated food distribution systems,” Andrus is working with boat builders to create a carbon-neutral alternative to bring “8 tons of grains, roots, wine, cider, and maple syrup” from Vermont to New York City.
SkySails, a German company, has a system that uses a giant kite (picture that!) for towing commercial shipping boats while the University of Tokyo’s Wind Challenger project is working on using sailing ships to transport cargo.
As Le Grand says in the BBC, “We are using solutions of the 18th century to speak to people of the 21st century.” To find innovative and sustainable solutions for today’s problems, we need to look not only ahead but back in time.
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