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A New Age of Sail? Clipper ships are back in business

Posting in Design

The Cutty Sark was one of the last clipper ships

Sail last dominated freight hauling during the clipper ship era of the mid-1800s -- with vessels averaging 19 mph and carrying up to 1,500 tons -- until coal-powered ships gained an edge.

Betting that regulations to curb air pollution emissions will increase fuel costs for conventional ocean freighters, Rolls-Royce wants to develop a modern-day clipper ship that’s 55 percent more efficient. Is it time to herald a New Age of Sail? Businessweek reports.

Around 90 percent of the world’s cargo fleet is currently propelled by bunker fuel. While it’s relatively cheap at about $600 per ton, it’s also one of the heaviest and dirtiest of crude oil distillates.

International Maritime Organization sulfur caps already require cleaner, pricier grades of fuel. Additionally, ships entering Emission Control Areas were required to reduce to 1 percent sulfur fuel in 2010, and all oceangoing vessels will have to adopt 0.5 percent sulfur by around 2020.

London-based Rolls is predicting that trimmer designs and innovative propulsion systems -- such as liquid natural gas and “high-tech wind” -- could more than offset the extra cost.

The sail-powered freighter from Rolls partner B9 Shipping will measure 330 feet long and carry 4,500 tons of freight (right). It'll derive primary power from a 180-foot sail, augmented by biomethane engines.

  • The sail is hoisted with an automated rig, and mechanically controlled masts rotate to catch available wind.
  • The sail and engine could be used together for optimal efficiency: 60 percent of the thrust will come from wind, 40 percent from the engine fueled by biomethane gas (during calm conditions or when maneuvering in port).
  • An analysis showed an estimated fuel consumption of 46 percent to 55 percent less than an equivalent conventional ship on the same route.
  • Rolls will provide a backup power plant that’s able to burn methane produced from municipal waste.

While the wind-methane hybrid design increases capital costs, B9 says the investment will pay off within five years of a ship’s three-decade lifespan. They’re trying to raise the $22 million needed to put a ship in the water within two years.

[Businessweek]

Images: the clipper Cutty Sark by State Library of Victoria via Wikimedia (top) / Concept design by B9 Shipping (bottom)

— By on July 30, 2013, 5:10 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure