Wind-power for supertankers and cargo ships

The idea is to re-purpose the design of aeroplane wings for ships to provide extra thrust...
25 August 2023

Interview with 

John Cooper, BAR Technologies


Much of the world’s heaviest cargo goes by sea. And the ships that move it burn what’s regarded as one of the nastiest fuels we have - heavy fuel oil: this is effectively “tar” left over from the distillation of crude. It’s so thick that the engines have to heat it up to keep it runny enough to use it. It’s also full of sulphur, and a big boat will burn off 100 tonnes of the stuff every day. Now, a vessel that used to run exclusively on that fuel has been retrofitted with a pair of giant vertical “wings” that use the power of the wind to knock a significant chunk off the fuel costs. John Cooper is the CEO of BAR Technologies, which designed the sails. I asked him to describe how these wind wings work…

John - I'm going to put you in an aircraft on the way to your holidays and I'm going to ask you to look out the window at the wing when you're taking off. That's the moment that the aircraft has the most vertical thrust. And what will be happening is you'll see the wing, but you'll see an element coming out the front of the wing and normally an element coming out the back of the wing. And then the wing is actually becoming more of a crescent shape. And then what we've done is we've taken that arrangement and made it vertical and put it on ships. And that means that that thrust is now horizontal, pushing the boat forward.

Chris - Seen from a distance, this is basically an oil tanker with a couple of big aeroplane wings sticking out of it. How much thrust will this actually generate for the boat?

John - So it will produce enough thrust for each wing to save one and a half tons of heavy fuel oil per day. So this is significant. So that first one that you see has two wings, so therefore it's three tons of heavy fuel oil per day. And even more importantly, for our next generations, the carbon footprint is reduced by nine tons of CO2 per day. So the UK person going about their normal business emits nine tons a year. And we are trying to save that every day on this vessel.

Chris - And these wings, are they literally aircraft wing sized, each one of them that you've put on the boat?

John - Well, arguably bigger. The wings that you see on this boat are 37 and a half metres tall in their flying shape and 20 metres wide. These are big wings.

Chris - When a person sails, say a yacht, they adjust the positional angle of the sails in order to get the best amount of force forward for the boat relevant to the wind direction. So are your sails adjustable in the same way?

John - Exactly. So actually those three elements that I was describing are all mounted such that the centre element can rotate 360 degrees to provide either a fail safe position so there's no lift, and that means they're all in a line pointing towards the wind or in a really strong thrusting flying shape where they're actually presented in the same way that an aircraft wing is on takeoff and in that nice crescent. It's part of our patented technology that we can present that wing in all different angles and create the required thrust from the prevailing wind.

Chris - Are these all retrofittable? So could we take some of those enormous great grain carriers you're seeing leaving Ukraine at the moment or trying to, some of the big oil tankers that are steaming around the world, can this be retrofitted to ships like that?

John - Absolutely. And indeed the first vessel sailed in as a motoring vessel called the Pyxis Ocean, and three weeks later sailed out as a hybrid vessel with two of our Wind Wings on board, and the same with the second vessel. So these legacy vessels we must concentrate on. We must retrofit wings to as many as possible. Of course, we're interested in new build designs as well. And we're working with many of the vessel designers around the world such that they incorporate our Wind Wings in their new build designs. But actually the problem's much bigger than that, and the legacy fleet is really important to us too.

Chris - And are they made of materials that are readily sourceable and have better carbon credentials than the fuel that they're saving? Because obviously it's laudable that you are saving that amount of carbon cost from burning fuel every day. But if arguably there's a huge great carbon cost to making these things, then it's a vanishing return. So what are they made of and how sustainable is that?

John - Yeah, so we've concentrated very hard on this aspect. We've purposely stayed away from carbon fibre. We've concentrated on materials that are already used in the industry, readily available in the locations that we are going to be making them. So our central mast is made of D32 and D36 steel, which is ship building steel. And the elements clad around that mast are made of glass composite, which is the exact same materials that the world is making wind farm blades from. So the technologies are known, the materials are known, we stayed away from materials that would be new and have a bigger footprint than those already used. And of course when we're talking about one and a half tons of fuel, that's 4.65 tons of CO2 per wing per day. The cost in terms of the environment of making the wings is totally minuscule in comparison to the savings made even over the first week.

Chris - And how big is the potential market if this takes off and you've got shipping magnates all over the world who are now coming to you saying, can we implement this design? Can we fit this? How big is that market?

John - Well, the good news is we have got shipping magnates all over the world coming to us to order wings. So they're all just waiting for the results of this first voyage, which I can absolutely tell your listeners are very good indeed, so there's an exclusive for you, Chris. I think that we'll be making 200 wings next year, 400 wings the year after, and we'll be going from there. So my biggest headache is finding places and supply chains to make lots of wings. Good problem to have.


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