We are living through a revolution in green shipping, as two ships with very different green technologies have both begun maiden voyages. These are the world's first wind-powered and green methanol-powered cargo ships.
"Pyxis Ocean" is the world's first wind-powered freighter, currently conducting its maiden voyage from China to Brazil. This vessel, which is owned by Mitsubishi Corporation, is fitted with two "WindWings", a technology developed by BAR Technologies, a spin-off of Ben Ainslie Racing, the British team formed by the Olympic sailing gold medallist, and produced by Yara Marine Technologies.
The technology uses solid foldable wing sails, up to 37 meters (121 feet) in height, and made from fibreglass, which is also used for wind turbines. According to BAR Technologies the technology can reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 30% on average trading patterns, and save the ship up to 3 tonnes of fuel per day (i.e. 1.5 tonnes per WindWing per day).
Pyxis Ocean – chartered by Cargill – recently left Singapore en route to the port of Paranagua in Brazil in the first major test to see if the technology will work on a real voyage.
Although the sails are designed to work together with the engine, engineers were delighted to find that the vessel was able to sail only on wind power– reaching more than five and a half knots on wind power alone.
The technology is particularly important because it can be retro-fitted to existing ships, thus helping to decarbonize the shipping industry without having to scrap existing vessels.
The technology could change current shipping routes, making it more profitable to follow old trading routes with favourable winds, rather than simply following straight lines.
Cargill initially trialled kites but found they simply did not work and subsequently joined forces with Portsmouth-based BAR Technologies for the WindWings project.
The team also needed to build in a tilting mechanism that enabled the sails to be stowed for example when passing under bridges, or in stormy seas.
As well as being able to pivot, each wing has three moveable elements that can be adjusted to harness the wind to different degrees, in a similar way to an aircraft wing which can change its shape during take-off and landing. This is important, to allow the wings to adapt to sudden changes in wind conditions, such as a sudden storm. In extreme conditions the wings can be folded onto the deck.
Sensors are used extensively to detect wind speed and direction, and to detect the tilt of the ship, and adjust the wings accordingly.
The designs were tested using digital simulations before the wings were built. It seems likely that computer simulations will be used in developing future technology of this sort, and indeed computer simulations are widely used in many industries. So it is worth taking a moment to consider the patent position in relation to such simulations.
In 2021 in Europe there was a significant change in the law when the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office (EPO) issued its decision G1/19 relating to computer simulations. Before this decision a leading earlier case (T1227/05, which related to the simulation of a circuit subject to 1/f noise) held that simulation of a technical system was sufficient to establish a technical purpose. Under the new law claims to simulations must in effect specify what practical use is made of the simulation, and such practical uses must also be given in the description of the patent specification.
Of course, in inventions of the type we have been discussing there is a very obvious practical application in the form of reducing the fuel consumption of the vessel. Therefore, provided any simulations are limited to these or other practical applications, the simulations should be patentable at the EPO, provided other requirements such as novelty and inventive step are met. In addition, the resulting product (in this case the "wings" of the vessel) would also be patentable in themselves, again provided that the requirements of novelty and inventive step are met.
At the same time as the Pyxis Ocean's maiden voyage, Maersk is also involved in the maiden voyage of the world's first green methanol-powered container ship. The 32,300 dwt ship, which will be named Laura Maersk in September, departed from South Korea on an 11,000 nautical mile voyage to Copenhagen, Denmark. A supply of green methanol has been established all along the vessel’s route to Europe.
Green methanol is methanol that is produced renewably and without polluting emissions. The conventional method of producing methanol involves a catalytic process using fossil feedstock such as natural gas or coal. However, methanol can be produced based on wind or solar power, geothermal energy or hydropower. This so-called “green methanol” can be used as an energy carrier for storing electricity generated from renewable sources or as a transportation fuel.
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, currently the shipping industry’s biggest obstacle with green methanol isn’t operating on it but sourcing it. The green methanol industry is currently small and there are only a handful of commercial producers worldwide. Consequently, green methanol currently costs more than conventional fuels.
However technology in this area is developing all the time. For example, a German startup active in the field of green methanol production has patented a new process for capturing carbon dioxide and converting it into methanol. The patented process is more than 30% more efficient at carbon dioxide capture compared to state-of-the-art amine-based carbon dioxide capture, and was developed as part of a Horizon Europe project. Horizon Europe is the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation with a budget of €95.5 billion. It aims to tackle climate change, helps to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and boost the EU’s competitiveness and growth.
Development of new ideas often takes work over a number of years. Indeed the song, "Sail Away" by British singer-songwriter David Gray, which inspired the title of this article, was worked on by Gray over a number of years, before contributing to the success of one of the longest-charting albums in UK chart history. The song begins, "Sail away with me honey, I put my heart in your hands", and by analogy we could also argue that the hearts and lives of future generations are indeed in the hands of the innovators of today who are striving to create a greener planet.
Hopefully further research and development will result in reduced costs for green methanol. Indeed, Maersk seems to be optimistic about the future, as it has 24 methanol-fuelled containerships on order, and has been followed by other large carriers. More than 100 containerships capable of operating on methanol as their primary fuel are due to enter service over the next five years.