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Shipping containers account for 2% of global emissions — wind-powered sails could help


Shipping goods across the globe conjures images of massive cargo ships stacked high with metal containers holding goods from around the world. But the cost in fuel and CO2 emissions from these journeys is high. The shipping industry accounts for more than 2% of the world's global emissions. But this week, the shipping giant Cargill launched a new type of vessel from the coast of China toward Brazil. We say new, but the technology that partially powers the vessel is as old as civilization, wind-powered sails. John Cooper is CEO of BAR Technologies, the group that's behind these new sails. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN COOPER: Well, thanks for your interest. I'm really pleased to be with you.

SIMON: Why are you putting sails back on cargo ships?

COOPER: Well, I think, you know, heavy fuel oil, which fuels these big ships, as you mentioned, around the world is the real dregs of the fuel. You know, after you've refined the clean fuels off, you get this HFO, and every ton of HFO you burn at sea, you're emitting 3.15 tons of CO2. So, you know, as you say, the shipping industry is over 2% of the world's emissions, and that's the equivalent of a European country. So it's a big problem.

SIMON: Tell us about the sails, 'cause I gather they're not - well, forgive me - not like the ones we see in Regattas, are they?

COOPER: No, absolutely. These are more closer to aircraft wings. So, Scott, imagine you're taking off in an aircraft, and you're hurtling along the runway. You'll see the wing out the window.

SIMON: Yeah.

COOPER: You'll see a nose coming out of the front of the wing and maybe a tail out the back. And that's the sort of configuration that you see traditionally when you're trying to apply maximum upward thrust to get the plane off the ground. And actually what we've done is to invert that wing vertically and put it on the deck of a cargo ship, as you say. So that converts the upward thrust into forward momentum.

SIMON: Does that come at the cost of slowing down the ship?

COOPER: No. In fact, the first ship is actually on the ocean right now. The Pyxis Ocean, owned by Mitsubishi and chartered by Cargill, as you were saying, is currently doing 16 knots when it was designed with combustion engine to do 12.5 knots, so definitely not a speed reduction.

SIMON: How much fuel does it save?

COOPER: One and a half tons of fuel per wing per day. So the Pyxis Ocean has got two wings on it. The next vessel, which is already in dry dock, has four wings on it. If you can imagine four wings on the vessel, that's six tons of fuel saved per day, and most importantly, that's 19 tons of CO2. Now, us Europeans and probably you Americans emit probably about 9 tons of CO2 per year as a citizen. So every day that vessel is saving two citizens worth of CO2. So it's really, really significant.

SIMON: I gather you have a background from working for Formula 1 racing teams?

COOPER: That's right. I spent 15 years at McLaren.

SIMON: I mean, I guess when you're designing a ship and a Formula 1 vehicle, they can both benefit from the most expeditious use of the wind.

COOPER: Well, absolutely. They're looking for 0.1 of a second, and we're looking for tons of fuel, but the concept is quite similar.

SIMON: Are these wings, these new sails, expensive to install and maintain?

COOPER: They are expensive. But having said that, when you're saving 1 1/2 tons of fuel per wing per day, the business case is very good, especially when you take into the carbon taxes which are coming.

SIMON: Yeah.

COOPER: But actually even when you look forward and you look what the marine industry is trying to do, it's trying to introduce new CO2-free fuels, and they're going to be $2,000 a ton. So, you know, actually the business case is just going to get better and better.

SIMON: The shipping industry has agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero...


SIMON: ...By or around the year 2050.


SIMON: Is that possible?

COOPER: Hundred percent - the technology is here. BAR can produce a zero-CO2 ship right now. There is nothing in terms of technology that is stopping us. If the industry can't do it by 2050, then, you know, we should be penalized. We owe it to our children.

SIMON: Mr. Cooper, when's the ship expected to dock in Brazil?

COOPER: Well, I spoke to the ops director today. He's having a lovely time on the vessel, learning to cook the Indonesian way with the rest of the crew. And he reports that they're probably docking in Brazil in about three weeks time.

SIMON: John Cooper is chief executive of BAR Technologies. Thanks so much for being with us and smooth sailing.

COOPER: Yeah, very kind. Thank you so much to you, and thanks to your listeners. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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