AUSTRALIA - CHINA

Solar-powered tankers ready for 2010

An Australian company has just signed a deal with major Chinese cargo company COSCO to provide tankers powered by sails that are fuelled by sunlight. Read more...

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An Australian company has just signed a deal with major Chinese cargo company COSCO to provide tankers powered by sails that are fuelled by sunlight.

Petrol and goods are set to fare the seas by sail once more, with a new technology that harnesses sunlight and wind power through solar-panel sails. They haven't been built yet, but ships like the ones in these images are planned to take to the seas within two years. Solar Sailor, an Australian company specialised in renewable energy, has just signed a contract with shipping giant COSCO. Perhaps a gesture in the hope of improving their reputation - the cargo company is better known for the 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill and the controversial Zimbabwe arms deal with Mugabe.

The new ships will reduce oil consumption by 20 to 40% through wind energy and 5% through sun. The sails, managed by a computer that calculates the angle by exposition to wind and sun, become profitable after four years of use. Next up, Solar Sailor plans to target gas-guzzling luxury yachts owned by the rich.

Solar Sailor's planned solar sails

A planned design for a "solar-sailed" luxury yacht.

One of Solar Sail's current solar powered boats (solely solar powered, not wind powered).

Photos from the Solar Sailor website.

"If the sun is high in the sky, there won't be any sun on the sails"

Francis Domain is a photovoltaic engineer at the INES-Education (the training department of a French solar energy institute).

This is an interesting idea. The fact that the sails are vertical, and therefore not orientated to best capture sunlight, doesn't seem to me an adequate way to produce energy. Does it have to take the sun only in the morning and evening? It seems the wind part will be much more important than the sun part, which risks being almost useless. But then it is always interesting to try new things.

There are similar initiatives underway. For example, solar wings that look like paragliders installed on boats. There are already some boats fitted out. There are also many luxury yachts, whose owners want to sail round the world in the most economical way, which have sunlight-converting parts. But it's the fact that they're horizontal, and not vertical, that allows them to best function for the sun.