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Mitsui O.S.K. plans introduction of ‘hard sails’ for ship propulsion

  • February 18, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 2:18 p.m.
  • English Press

TOKYO — Japanese shipping company Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL) is innovating with wind power to help propel its fleet as part of its decarbonization efforts.


MOL, Japan’s second largest shipping company, is developing a “hard sail” system that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


A fiber-reinforced plastic sail harnesses wind to complement conventional propulsion systems. The new technology will play a role in helping MOL reduce the group’s greenhouse emissions to net zero over the next three decades.


The sails are 52 meters high and 15 meters across. Each one will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 5% on Japan-Australia routes and about 8% on journeys to the U.S. West Coast, according to the company.


Greenhouse gas emissions from the global shipping industry have been estimated to equal the emissions from all of Germany, and shipping companies have come under pressure from stakeholders to step up efforts to decarbonize their operations.


Tokyo-based MOL developed the system jointly with Oshima Shipbuilding in the southwestern Japanese city of Saikai. It will be fitted first to a coal freighter.


MOL is also working on a project to replace by 2035 110 ships in its fleet with those propelled on fuel types that do not emit carbon dioxide when burned, including ammonia and hydrogen.(Photo courtesy of MOL)

The sail can be expanded, retracted and horizontally rotated when the ship is underway. Sensors monitor the strength and direction of the wind to trim the sail and adjust its size for optimal performance. The sail can also be manually operated in special situations, such as a system malfunction.


The first ship will be fitted with a single sail, but MOL has plans for ships with multiple sails.


In 2021, the MOL group announced a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. By 2030, it plans to have 90 ships in its fleet running on liquefied natural gas instead of fuel oil.


The company also plans to have 110 ships in its fleet running on non-carbon fuels, including ammonia and hydrogen.


MOL has also successfully tested a ship that can be propelled by an electric motor with a hydrogen fuel cell system when the wind drops. The hydrogen is produced by electrolysis and stored while the vessel is being propelled by wind. The hydrogen is separated from water using electricity from a turbine attached below the hull.


MOL plans to complete testing of the sail system by 2025 using a ship about 60 meters long before applying the results to large cargo vessels.

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