Wind Energy Using Sails in the 21st Century
One of the most important uses of wind energy centuries before was to bring brave and daring explorers far into the deepest part of our still largely unexplored planet Earth. Wind energy itself was directly used to propel a sailing ship towards its destination. The mechanism is simple, quite effective at its time, and has successfully widened our perspective of the world during the era of exploration and discovery.
Today however, there seems to be little practical use for this old technology. We now largely rely on gas/oil powered engines and nuclear reactors in powering our faster and sturdier oceangoing vessels. We often see sails simply used for recreational purposes. But could there be an alternative application of the technology in our modern era with an objective of using it for vessels that are usually powered by modern engines?
The 21st Century Sail
What would be the primary difference of the design for our modern sail compared to the sails that were used and developed for centuries? Take a look at a modern yacht or catamaran. Even if the basic wind propulsion principle is preserved, we already have at our disposal many different resources that provide us with superior sailing vessel designs compared to those that have already been in use for very long time. Here are the three basic modern resources for sail design that we have today to give you a better idea:
- Modern Synthetic Materials – Sails need to be sturdy enough to withstand the force of wind that blows into it. Before, ship sails were usually made of cotton or linen, but today, we now largely use synthetic materials. The most common of which is the all-around Polyester (PET), but there are many other alternative materials that can be used like vectran and carbon fiber.
- Better Science – The study of fluid mechanics is very important in keeping air or water drag low in vehicles and vessels. Before, our explorers are simply required to learn how to “catch the wind”, with little emphasis to the minute effects of wind at each corner of the sail. Today, we can now even predict the entire flow of wind surrounding the area of vessel using our current knowledge in science and mathematics.
- Assistance of Computers – Computers provide support in almost all aspects of sail use and construction. We could use CAD to design the sail that could maximize wind energy efficiency. We can design systems using computers that can automatically adjust sails to optimal cruising levels. We can even use computers to create simulated environments where we could test our designs.
Naturally, the most important environmental advantage of reusing sails for modern use is that we can save energy by simply using the kinetic force of the wind to directly propel the vessel forward. No need for multi-stage energy transformation cycles (green energy source -> electric energy -> mechanical energy) that may produce heat loss.
Productive Uses for Modern Sailing Vessels
Aside from the recreational uses of our modern yachts, sailboats and catamarans, designers have also found other modern productive uses for this age old technology:
- As a Medium for Tourism – In Manhattan for example, the Clipper City schooner provides interested passengers with a tour of the city, using only its sails to guide them through the different destinations within its itinerary. Additional motor engines are of course installed in these old-style sailing vessels, but these are primarily used only for auxiliary purposes.
- As an Auxiliary Propulsion System for Large Heavy Ships – A team of researchers headed by Kiyoshi Uzawa at the University of Tokyo have been designing a hybrid propulsion system for a giant tanker that uses a set of rigid sails. The sails are to be made from aluminum and fiber-reinforced plastic. According to their simulations, the rigid sails are capable of reducing energy consumption by as much as 30%. It is quite ironic though that these would be initially used for oil tankers (how about filling them with biofuel instead?).
While the reduced energy cost of ship sails applied on modern vessels do have positive environmental effects, we must remember that it also points to a potential economic advantage to the investors of the technology. If that’s the case, then it is highly likely that sailing technology might still stay as our alternative application for wind energy for many more decades to come.
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