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Michelin’s Giant Inflatable Sails Aim To Decarbonize The Shipping Industry

French tire manufacturer, Michelin, is making giant inflatable sails designed to help the shipping industry decarbonize. After being retrofitted on cargo ships, the sails will lower the engine’s dependence on fossil fuels — reportedly by as much as 20%. A smaller version of the sails was recently tested successfully in Switzerland while Michelin hopes to trial a bigger version — around 3,000-5,000 square feet — on a cargo ship next year before beginning large-scale production.

Innovative design

The sails are made from an undisclosed, flexible material and use sensors to measure wind speed and direction, allowing them to move as necessary to catch the wind. They also don’t need rigging by a crew; a button inflates or deflates them. These sails can harness much more wind than traditional cloth designs. Just like aircraft wings, Michelin’s sails are designed to “generate a lift force perpendicular to wind direction with as little aerodynamic drag as possible”. According to Benoit Dailliez, project leader for Michelin’s wing sail mobility project, the sail’s “retrofit-ability” makes them attractive to the mass shipping market — that’s “also where the most carbon savings are as older ships tend to be the worst polluters”.

Greening the shipping industry  

"Our aim is to contribute to the decarbonization of maritime transport," says Dailliez. He adds that as regulation around carbon emissions increases so will the demand for green alternatives.

Shipping, responsible for 90% of world trade, accounts for 3% of man-made carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, shipping-related emissions have increased over the last decade, but retrofit green sails could help reverse this trend. "The obvious economic (incentive) is reduced fuel," explains Dailliez, "and when you reduce fuel you reduce your greenhouse gas (emissions)." Decarbonization is now also increasingly important to consumers with two-thirds thinking carbon labeling on products is a good idea. The same consumers also hold brands committed to lowering their carbon footprint in higher regard. Customer service, however, is the deciding factor that motivates purchases for 90% of consumers. When it comes to delivery and shipping services, customers value speed, discipline, and quality service most, LSO, the South’s premier regional logistics leader, explains.

Slow uptake

Yet, according to Tristan Smith, associate professor and head of the Shipping Group at University College London, the shipping industry will likely require stronger incentives to adopt green technologies. "There's a decade of (wind propulsion) designs that look good, that save money, that in theory pay for themselves, that haven't materialized into action," says Smith. "It's not because they don't save fuel, but clearly because they don't save enough fuel relative to their cost." New regulations likely need to be imposed to ensure the widespread use of wind power. "We're basically missing an opportunity to reduce thousands and millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions because the regulatory bodies aren't making the right decisions at this point in time," Smith says.

The impact of Michelin’s sails on the industry won’t be known until they’re officially launched. Hopefully, environmentally responsible businesses will adopt the sails, resulting in price decreases and growing accessibility.

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