Work begins on feasibility of sails on bulk carriers

Paul Gunton
Paul Gunton
ShipInsight

23 November 2018


A feasibility study into whether racing yacht sailing technology can benefit a bulk carrier operator got under way this month. Depending on the outcome of the study, a commercial demonstrator could be sailing in 2021.

Ships operated by Danish bulk carrier operator Ultrabulk could benefit from the technology as they carry biomass to the UK’s largest power station, in the north east of England. It is run by Drax, which has converted two thirds of the plant to burn compressed wood pellets and last year it imported 6.8M tonnes of them. These generated renewable electricity amounting to 14% of the UK’s entire renewable energy output, Drax has said.

It is a partner in the study, along with the Smart Green Shipping Alliance (SGSA) and Humphreys Yacht Design (HYD), both of the UK. The one-year study began on 1 November and has a budget of £100,000 (US$128,000).

Drax
A preliminary concept developed by SGSA for a 3,000dwt sail-assisted bulk carrier (image: SGSA)

HYD has designed a number of high-profile racing yachts and in a joint statement this week (20 November), one of HYD’s directors, Tom Humphreys, said that “transferring knowledge and technologies from offshore yacht racing to improve the performance of commercial merchant ships mirrors the way Formula One drives design development in the automotive industry.”

He and his fellow director Rob Humphreys are the ‘innovation leads’ on the project, which has been funded by the UK government-backed InnovateUK, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and a small group of private investors.

Their plan is to look into the potential benefits of fitting ships with Fastrigs, which are “automatic, freestanding rigs that capture the most wind at least cost”, according to their promoter, the SGSA.

ShipInsight asked SGSA’s chief executive Diane Gilpin whether other wind assistance technologies had been considered for the project, in particular Flettner rotors or kites – both of which have been fitted on a number of vessels in recent years. In fact, HYD was involved in the best-known kite system, developed by the German company SkySails. “We are confident Fastrigs will save more fuel” than either rotors or kites, she said. “This feasibility study allows us to test that assertion [and] if we can retrofit a commercial demonstrator we can secure the critical data needed to do a Flettner rotor vs wingsails test.”

She estimated that savings of around 20% will be achievable and said that the project’s aim “is to develop a design that maximises the amount of fuel saved, for better commercial outcomes.” In the joint statement, she had said that the prototypes the group is planning to develop “will look as much like the Cutty Sark as a Tesla does a Model T Ford.”

That statement included two illustrations of those prototypes. One showed a conventional bulk carrier with sails mounted along either side while the other showed a rather smaller and more streamlined vessel with sails mounted on the centreline. The feasibility study is based around the conventional vessel but Ms Gilpin told ShipInsight that the smaller concept emerged from some earlier work SGSA had been involved with.

That had resulted in a concept design that was tested in a towing tank and wind tunnel and its performance data were independently assessed by two organisations. “Both found that fuel savings of about 50% over a year could be made from wind on a fully optimised newbuild 3,000dwt vessel,” she said, but “the technology leap from fossil-powered ships to our concept design proved to be too challenging for the market.”

Among the companies SGSA had approached was Drax, which was of interest because of its large biomass imports. “They gave us serious support,” Ms Gilpin said, but “the small ships they were using were operating in ice areas [and] they were using a lot of tramping vessels” so “the investment risks were too high” for a novel design such as the one SGSA was then proposing.

But Drax remained supportive and this week’s statement quoted its group chief executive Will Gardiner as saying that “if we’re serious about meeting [the UK’s climate] targets, decarbonising transportation is the next big challenge.” Drax’s aim is “to deliver a zero carbon, low cost future for all,” he said, and “the combination of green shipping with renewables makes an even greater contribution to decarbonisation globally.”

The statement also quoted Per Lange, chief executive of Ultrabulk, who described the feasibility study as “very much in line with the environmental focus of Ultrabulk and the shipping industry at large.” He looked beyond the industry’s reduction in NOx and expected cuts to SOx after 2020, saying that “CO2 still needs to be reduced” and pledging that “Ultrabulk is committed to achieving significant additional reductions” to the targets set by IMO.

The statement also quoted Per Lange, chief executive of Ultrabulk, who described the feasibility study as “very much in line with the environmental focus of Ultrabulk and the shipping industry at large.” He looked beyond the industry’s reduction in NOx and expected cuts to SOx after 2020, saying that “CO2 still needs to be reduced” and pledging that “Ultrabulk is committed to achieving significant additional reductions” to the targets set by IMO.

Asked by ShipInsight how Ultrabulk will assess, from the feasibility study, whether to install the sails, he said that once the study is concluded, “the partners will jointly evaluate the predicted fuel savings with the total investment.”

For its first six months, the study is focusing on technical topics to establish the mechanical parameters for retrofitting Fastrigs onto ships. The following six months will be spent preparing a business case and detailed costings. The project partners’ hope that, depending on the study’s outcome, the 2021 target date for a commercial demonstrator will be met.

ShipInsight queried the practicalities of a tall sailing rig on a bulk carrier, suggesting to the project partners that the heavy cranes and grabs needed for handling bulk cargo would risk damaging the equipment. Mr Lange acknowledged those examples of how damage might be caused as “just two of many concerns and risk factors which need to be evaluated during this process.”

Rob Humphries of HYD confirmed that this risk “has been major part of our task to make sure that the potential problem you outline is minimised.”

He said that the designers “have spent time in relevant docks and watched various cargo-handling scenarios” as a result of which “we are reviewing a number of potential design paths, all of which have user-friendliness on a pretty equal standing to thrust contribution.”