Cargo Ships Go Retro: Three New Projects To Clean Up Shipping With Sails

Old-timey sailing ships won’t be carrying cars from Japan, but we can make shipping cargo much more efficient with a little blast from the technological past. Three companies are doing just that.

Cargo Ships Go Retro: Three New Projects To Clean Up Shipping With Sails

Tall ships used to ply the oceans of the world, powered only by the wind. Today, ships are equally important in terms of global trade: Despite the invention of airplanes, we still ship an enormous percentage of our goods by cargo ship. Consider this: While planes carried 25 million tons of goods in 2007, ships carried 8 billion tons (PDF). But cargo ships are powered by massive diesel engines and are an often unconsidered contributor to climate change, responsible for 4% of total global emissions and much larger amounts of air pollution. The solution: Get back to those sails.


Three new projects–all from Japan–are finding similar ways of making shipping more sustainable by adding masts, sails, and other efficiency technologies. It’s a long way from what Columbus sailed, but it should still make getting cargo across the oceans a little cleaner.

The Wind Challenger

Started in 2009, Wind Challenger is a joint-project between the University of Tokyo, and several ship-builders and shipping lines. A version already in use converts waste engine heat to generate electricity. A future design, set to be unveiled within five years, will use fixed carbon-fiber sails to reduce CO2 by up to 50%.

The Aquarius MRE System

The MRE, from Eco Marine Power, incorporates solar panels, a lithium battery, control systems, and sails. Founder Greg Atkinson says he estimates “conservatively” that a ship fitted with the system could cut fuel costs 10% to 20%. But a new boat, designed with such features from the beginning, could see upwards of 40% reduction. The technology is primarily for large bulk carriers, but Atkinson is also talking to makers of smaller passenger boats. He expects to see the first installations next year. “It’s fairly untapped area,” he says. “There seems to be a lot of opportunity to do something. It has really revved up in the last five years. We’re seeing a lot of work on this in Japan.”

NYK Super Eco Ship 2030

Shipping line NYK is working with Finnish and Italian partners to develop this futuristic design, which also uses fixed sails. The aim is to reduce CO2 emissions 69% by 2030, and to eliminate them by 2050.

Bon voyage.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.