Oceanbird — Sweden’s new car carrier is the world’s largest wind-powered vessel 

(CNN) – Oceanbird may look like a ship of the future, but it is reminiscent of ancient maritime history – because it is propelled by the wind.

The transatlantic car transporter is designed by Wallenius Marine, a Swedish shipbuilder, with support from the Swedish government and several research institutes.

With a capacity of 7,000 vehicles, the 650-foot ship is similar in size to traditional car transporters, but will look radically different. The hull is crowned by five telescopic “wing sails”, each 260 feet high. The sails can be rotated 360 degrees without touching each other. They can retract to 195 feet to clear bridges or withstand harsh weather.

The sails, which are made of steel and composite materials, must be this size to generate enough propulsive power for the 35,000-ton ship.

Although “the general principles of fixed wing sails are not new,” designing the Oceanbird’s sails was a challenge, says Mikael Razola, naval architect and research project manager for Oceanbird at Wallenius Marine.

Oceanbird’s telescopic “wing sails” will be the tallest ever built.

Wallenius Marine

That’s because these are the tallest ship sails ever built. “This ship is up on the mast more than 100 meters above the surface of the water,” says Razola. “When you move that hard in the sky, the wind direction and speed change quite a lot.”

To better understand atmospheric conditions at this altitude, Wallenius mounted sensors on his existing ships as they crossed the Atlantic, and collected data on wind speed and momentum (a clockwise change in wind direction) up to 650 feet above sea level. “All of this information has helped us develop an efficient wing and fuselage system that can make optimal use of the power available in the wind,” says Razola.

Cleaning up a dirty industry

Crucial elements in the global automobile trade, seaworthy car transporters, are known as RoRo – the name is derived from “roll on, roll off”. Instead of loading vehicles with cranes, which would be slow and inefficient, vehicles are wheeled along ramps built into the ship.

Large, conventional RoRo consume an average of 40 tons of fuel per day and generate 120 tons of CO2 – that’s the equivalent of driving 270,000 miles. The shipping industry is under pressure to reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body that regulates global shipping, shipping accounted for 2.89% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. In the same year, the IMO introduced a mandatory 50% reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – with the aim of achieving zero emissions “as soon as possible in this century”.

Oceanbird is set to exceed those goals – Wallenius says the ship will emit 90% less CO2 than traditional car transporters. It won’t be completely emission-free, however, as it will continue to rely on engines to maneuver in and out of ports and for emergencies.

Slow sailing

With a projected top speed of around 10 knots, Oceanbird is slower than standard car transporters, which can travel at 17 knots. It will take approximately 12 days instead of the standard seven to cross the Atlantic.

According to Razola, this long journey requires some planning changes as well as acceptance by the automakers. “Of course there will be challenges and we won’t be able to do things exactly as we do today, but the reactions from manufacturers so far have been very positive,” he says.

An inner tank at SSPA, another facility working on Oceanbird, where a model with artificial wind and waves is being tested.

An inner tank at SSPA, another facility working on Oceanbird, where a model with artificial wind and waves is being tested.

Wallenius Marine

Jakob Kuttenkeuler, professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm – one of the project staff – is also optimistic. “People are environmentally aware enough now, as we believe there will be customers willing to put their cars on a ship that is about half as fast as today’s ship if we can make it carbon neutral,” he says.

Kuttenkeuler and his team work with Wallenius on performance and aerodynamic calculations and use weather data to simulate realistic sailing conditions. They built a 7-meter model of Oceanbird that will be sailing in the Stockholm Archipelago later this year to collect data that will help determine the final design of the ship.

According to Razola, it will then take about three years for the full version to be released. “Our goal is to see Oceanbird sail in 2024.”

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