Hard sail test hits the high seas, aiming to reduce cargo ship emissions by 30 percent

The Pyxis Ocean is currently testing two 123-foot WindWings.

BAR Technologies

A cargo ship equipped with rigid sails, each the height of a 10-story building, has departed on its inaugural journey. The Pyxis Ocean vessel will test WindWings sails, designed to harness old-school air power to help reduce fuel usage — and the shipping industry’s CO2 emissions. The sail’s creators estimate the technology could decarbonize cargo ships by about 30 percent as the maritime sector tries to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The estimated reduction could be higher if paired with alternative fuels.

The ship has been retrofitted with two WindWings, each measuring 37.5 m (123 ft) tall. The rigid sails are made from the same materials as wind turbines and can be added to cargo ships’ decks, providing an option for older vessels to reduce environmental impact. The ship’s maiden voyage will chart a route from China to Brazil.

The project is a collaboration between BAR Technologies (which developed the sails), Cargill Ocean Transportation, Mitsubishi Corporation and Yara Marine. “The Maritime Industry is an extremely hard industry to decarbonize,” said Cargill president Jan Dieleman. “So there’s not many tools that you have. So it’s really important that we as users of the maritime industry are also going to get involved in some of the innovation and really move the industry forward.”

A cargo ship fitted with two enormous, rigid sails. Bird's eye view looking down from near the top of one of the sails (both are visible with most of the ship's deck).
BAR Technologies

The shipping industry agreed in July to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero “by or around, i.e., close to, 2050.” The nonbinding agreement is essentially toothless but meant as a signal to governments of where to benchmark their (binding) targets, according to The New York Times. The agreement would have been even more lax if not for a “strong last-minute push” from small island nations and other less economically developed coastal countries, which led to a plan that provides a chance at limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s the threshold climate experts agree the world needs to avoid to spare Earth from the worst climate-change scenarios.

“We fought tooth and nail for these numbers,” Carlos Fuller, Belize’s representative at the United Nations, told the NYT last month. “They aren’t perfect, but they give us a shot at staying within 1.5 degrees Celsius. And that’s what we came here to do.”

Wind power has the potential to help reach those goals, but adoption is a challenge. “We have the number of ships using this technology doubling over the past 12 months,” Stephen Gordon, managing director at maritime data firm Clarksons Research, told the BBC. “This is from a low base, however. In the international shipping fleet and new-build order book of over 110,000 vessels, we have records for under 100 having wind-assisted technology today.”