Can massive freighters use the wind to go green?
Schofield moved into a small room next to the Ben Ainslie Racing cafeteria, gathered a few engineers from the racing team and started designing, under the name BAR Technologies. The rigid sails they came up with, named WindWings, resemble vertically mounted airplane wings, towering 120 feet or more, and consist of a steel frame wrapped in lightweight composite fibers hardened in resin. . They are meant to be fitted to a ship in groups of three to five, spinning and changing shape to catch the wind so the ship can harness more free power from any given gust.
Schofield grew up on Mersea Island on the east coast of England, the son of a boatbuilder. His father made him his first sailboat – a one-masted green wooden canoe named Polo – when he was 6 years old. jump into each other’s boats; slapping homework on a Wednesday night running, with a hundred other kids in dinghies, at the weekly Mersea regattas. It was on his boat that he learned to read the wind in the ripples of the water and to catch a breeze that glided along the curve of a cloud. He found sailing to be like a game of chess: you have to see far enough into the horizon to find your way across the water from one gale to the next.
Today’s sailors no longer know the wind; conventional combustion engine ships mostly take the shortest straight route to their destination. Part of an efficient wind propulsion system is software that can guide the ship on routes that may not be the shortest – but, due to the way the wind moves, could be more economical in terms of fuel. During a windy stretch, a freighter can switch off its engines and be fully blown by the wind. Modern wind propulsion therefore depends on educational software, not sailors, to determine the best route.
By the time I visited Old Portsmouth, the Ben Ainslie Racing team had left their building, largely leaving it to Schofield, now the company’s chief technology officer, and his employees. BAR Technologies requisitioned the top floor, an open-plan oval room with nearly 360-degree views overlooking the harbor and historic townhouses. Schofield’s team had grown to 25, with a new hire almost every week. Mechanical and systems engineers, fluid dynamics analysts, and software developers worked in silence in front of large screens.
Bright yellow duct tape was looped across the floor – the 33-foot-wide center section, with two 16-foot-wide sections on either side – nearly half the length of the desk. These were the main lines, on a large scale, of BAR Technologies’ WindWings. The sails are designed to be mounted on oil tankers and dry bulk carriers, which carry unpackaged goods such as grain or coal. Schofield looked at the building’s measurements and determined that the office floor was 100 feet high, meaning the WindWings would be 24 feet taller. I looked up, trying to imagine a sail rising to this height.
When Schofield first took on the task of making a sail suitable for freighters, he thought it would be easy: much like a yacht sail, but larger. But a freighter’s sails must be optimized for factors other than speed. There were ports to consider, sailors, ship owners, manufacturers, regulations, the location of hatches, bird strikes, the fairly common prospect of a 36-foot wave breaking over the deck in the middle of it. ‘a storm.
The design they came up with, the WindWing, can be retrofitted on existing freighters or on newly built ships. The sail is designed to pivot automatically, using sensors to measure wind speed and direction, to catch it and to ensure the vessel continues to move forward. In a storm, or when the wind blows too hard, the sails automatically shut off, whipping the wind without harnessing it. To allow the ship to pass under a bridge, or while in port, the wings would fold back on themselves and then lower, flat, to the surface of the bridge – a 15-minute process – so that ” they are clear of the cargo hatches, cranes and guardrails of the vessel.