By Julie Gedeon

B9 Shipping – part of the B9 Energy Group of Northern Ireland – aims to build a fleet of sailing cargo ships that doesn’t use any fossil fuels whatsoever.

“The B9 design is not a silver bullet that will solve the emissions issue for the entire global fleet,” cautions Diana Gilpin, B9 Shipping’s Development Director. “Instead, we are working on a solution for the small ship sector – initially below 10,000 dead weight tonnes for bulk and liquid transport, as well as small cruise vessels – and those ships must operate in areas with decent wind speeds.”

B9 Energy Group was founded in 1992 with the purpose of developing renewable energy projects. B9 Shipping regards its cargo ship design as one of the “interconnected solutions” to address the huge challenges that the global community will face as fossil fuels become economically and environmentally less desirable.

“The International Chamber of Shipping says fuel prices have risen 400 per cent since 2000 and are, by far, the industry’s largest cost,” Gilpin notes. “A myriad of solutions must be developed to reduce shipping’s dependency on fossil fuels.”

Proven technologies

With the help of key industry players, B9 Shipping plans to have a full-scale working vessel launched within 36 months. “By combining proven technologies in a novel way, we can deal with the necessary design challenges and certification processes more quickly,” Gilpin says.

Each 3,000-dwt sailing cargo ship will derive 50 to 60 per cent of its power from wind using Dyna-rig sails for propulsion. German hydraulics engineer Wilhelm Prolls originally conceived the free-standing and independently rotating sails in the 1960s. Unencumbered by traditional deck rigging, they can be electronically controlled from a ship’s bridge. The Dyna-rig system has been employed successfully by Italian shipbuilders aboard the 88-metre Maltese Falcon clipper launched in 2006. “The fully automated square-rig configuration facilitates maximum power from the wind at the sail’s widest points,” Gilpin adds. “It also minimizes health and safety risks by being operated from the bridge, so crews aren’t required to go on deck to alter the settings of the sails. In the event of a sudden squall, the entire rig can quickly be turned out of the wind.”

Spark-ignition Rolls-Royce engines will provide the rest of the power. The engines will be fueled by liquified methane in a process that is identical to producing LNG. Sister company B9 Organic Energy has established a facility in Dungannon, Northern Ireland, to demonstrate the successful use of anaerobic digestion of municipal food waste. The waste is placed in a huge digester filled with bacteria that consume the organic waste and subsequently excrete it as a biogas.

A fundamental engineering analysis was completed over the summer. Now Gilpin and others are working nearly around the clock to complete an economic analysis before the end of this year. “Like any renewable energy project, the ship will have a higher capital cost offset over its lifespan by the cost-free supply of wind energy,” she says.

Route-specific savings

Designated for routes identified as having reliable winds based on historic weather data, the B9 ship is expected to run on wind power for 50 to 60 per cent of each journey. “In whatever configuration, a 50-per-cent saving on fuel costs is attractive,” Gilpin says. “We can, therefore, conclude – and, obviously, this is still in the broadest terms – that the design has the potential to be economically viable within the very near future, if not by the time the demonstrator ship goes in the water.” Calculations to date indicate that the cost-effectiveness of the B9 ships will be on a par with conventional diesel-powered vessels, enabling them to offer competitive freight rates on their selected routes.

The predictability of the B9 ship’s operational costs is being heralded as a major advantage. B9 Organic Energy can provide shipowners with long-term fixed contracts for liquid biomethane.

Powered by 100 per cent renewable energy sources, low-carbon B9 ships are all the more interesting as worldwide regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions come into force, along with carbon taxes and credits.

Racing expertise

B9 Shipping’s design has been inspired by the yachts embarking on the around-the-world races that have made Southampton along England’s South coast famous. “Just as Formula 1 racing has transferred motoring technology from racetracks to road cars, we’re doing the same with yachting for commercial shipping,” Gilpin says.

Rob Humphrey, who designed the Aviva and King Sher racing yachts, has played a key role in B9’s transfer of technology from yacht-racing to commercial applications in designing the B9 ship.

Always thinking about its environmental footprint, B9 will use renewable electricity to melt pieces from scrapped vessels to produce self-jigging steel plates that can easily be assembled to construct a B9 ship.

The University of Southampton’s Wolfson Unit for Marine Technology and Industrial Aerodynamics, which has developed the world’s leading-edge yachting technology for many years, has been conducting the necessary engineering tests.

Using smaller-scaled models at Wolfson Unit’s wind tunnel, a team led by senior research engineer Richard Pemberton has been evaluating the aerodynamic performance of the proposed design across a range of wind angles.

“Our tank testing marries what’s going on under and above water to tell us how fast the ship would sail in a given wind strength at a given angle,” Pemberton says. The research will also help to create a hull design that optimizes the Dyna-rig system’s performance under various wind conditions.

B9 Shipping’s designers and engineers are looking into a range of other possibilities for green ships, including fuel cells and five-masted vessels. “But these solutions are yet to be proven,” Gilpin says.

“We’re seeking to get a 100-per-cent renewably-powered ship in the water as soon as possible,” she adds. “We aren’t developing a once-and-for-all solution, but stimulating a rapid development program, and nothing prompts rapid design evolution quite like a tangible demonstration of what’s possible.”