Tanker with aluminium sails sets off on landmark voyage in bid to slash fuel emissions

The shipping industry has been set a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

The Chemical Challenger is the world's first chemical tanker ship fitted with massive rigid aluminium sails. AFP
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The world's first chemical tanker equipped with sails has embarked on a landmark voyage in which it is hoped they will help to cut fuel consumption by up to a fifth.

The 16,000-tone MT Chemical Challenger set sail from Antwerp for Istanbul on Friday and will undergo trials along the way, as the shipping industry strives to cut its carbon emissions.

It comes as the race is hotting up to tap into the market for wind-powered ships, after the UN’s International Maritime Organisation agreed a net-zero commitment by 2050 to reduce greenhouse gases from cargo shipping to comply with the Paris Climate Accords.

The Japanese-built ship is kitted out with four 16-metre (52ft) aluminium sails known as VentoFoils, which are similar to aircraft wings and use the same aerodynamic forces that keeps a plane in the air, to power the ship.

Operator Chemship hopes to cut fuel consumption by 10 to 20 per cent as the sails, which sit on the deck but can be deployed at the push of a button, allow the ship's captain to throttle back on the engine.

Other technologies in development include rotor sails and ships towed by kites, while Swedish company Oceanbird is working on a solely wind-powered vessel.

Chemship chief executive Niels Grotz admitted it was unlikely to “make money” on its latest project but said action was needed to tackle emissions targets.

“Shipping has always been extremely competitive and it will be a struggle to reach these targets,” he said.

“But we have to bring down CO2 emissions and we decided we're not just going to sit and wait for something magical to happen.”

The project to put sails on a chemical ship started when Mr Grotz and the sails' Dutch manufacturer, Econowind, put their heads together three years ago, he said.

He said that as an “avid sailor” he had been “thinking for a long time how we can make our industry more sustainable” and hopes the ship “will serve as an example to the rest of the world”.

The vast majority of the world's 100,000 cargo ships, which carry 90 per cent of goods, are currently powered by engines that are often the size of four-storey houses and are fuelled by polluting heavy oil and diesel.

These fuels contributed around 2 per cent of the world's carbon emissions in 2022, the International Energy Agency said.

According to Chemship, the sails are expected to yield an annual CO2 reduction of some 850 tonnes, which is the same output as around 500 cars.

Last week the installation of the four sails was completed while the Chemical Challenger was docked in Rotterdam.

The rigid aluminium sails increase the wind's power by five times and give “the same power as an imaginary sail of around 30 by 30 metres”, says Econowind's sales manager Rens Groot. They are equipped with a system of vents and holes to maximise airflow in winds of up to 61kph (38 mph).

Chemship’s operations director Michiel Marelis said the sails fit seamlessly within the tanker’s existing configurations and do not interfere with normal operations.

“These wind sails were easy to install without adding reinforcements to the ship,” he said.

“They are lightweight, have a small deck footprint and do not obstruct the crew’s line of sight. At the push of a button, they can fold or set the sails as needed. Above wind force seven, the sails fold automatically, which is much safer.”

Mr Marelis said that the company is “learning by doing” adding “with positive results, we will also equip the next vessel with VentoFoils”.

As more sails are deployed on ships, routes that fell out of favour as steam and fuel replaced wind power are also reopening, said Mr Groot.

“Once again, modern-day 'sailors' will have to look for the wind, for instance along the Brouwer Route,” he said, referring to a sailing route around the Cape of Good Hope, pioneered by Dutch explorer Hendrik Brouwer around 1611.

That route dips into the “Roaring Forties” – and its strong westerly winds – across the Indian Ocean, before snaking north again along the Australian west coast to Asia.

It became compulsory a few years later for captains employed by the Dutch East India company on their way to the Netherlands' colonies in today's Indonesia.

“We are trying to find a way to bring nature back into technology. Suddenly, you can feel a ship sailing again, just like in the olden days,” said Groot.

Updated: February 21, 2024, 1:21 PM