Kite Powered Cargo Ships to Reduce Fuel Costs

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The Sports and Leisure Business Unit of Porcher Industries, a leading manufacturer of fabrics for paragliding, is working with sailing legend Yves Parlier on a new project that could soon see cargo ships sustainably powered by kites, saving 20% of fuel costs.

A consortium called Beyond the Sea brings together Yves Parlier’s company, Yves Parlier Océa, with the Marseille-headquartered shipping group CMA CGM, the Ensta Bretagne engineering college in Brest, Cousin Trestec, a leader in rope manufacturing of Wervicq-Sud, and a technical textiles leader Porcher Industries.

The company’s Skytex brand of lightweight fabric is available for this end market and it also has a large portfolio of brands for spinnaker sails, parachutes and hot air balloons, plus a new generation of high performance reinforcements based on pure cellulose fibres that are highly compatible with bio-based resins.

Hero welcome

In a 2000 Vendée Globe single-handed race, Yves Parlier was ahead of his competitors for the whole of the first month, before a disaster struck. A week before Christmas, ferocious winds sent the mast of his boat, Aquitaine Innovations, breaking it into pieces. The rules of the race prohibit competitors from seeking outside help, and Parlier decided to nurse the boat for three weeks and four thousand kilometres to remote Stewart Island, just off the coast of New Zealand.

There, drawing on his past experience in the metallic composites industry, he carried out an ingenious repair job by joining the shattered mast together in two places – with resin cured in a makeshift oven powered by light bulbs. During the weeks of repair work, he eked out his rations with mussels collected from rocks below the tideline before setting off to sail more than halfway around the world under a makeshift rig half the size of the original, surviving on fish and seaweed.

Yves returned to France – six weeks after the other competitors – to a hero’s welcome, earning the nickname The Extra-Terrestrial for his exploits and being elected the nation’s top sports personality in 2002. He was also awarded the Chevalier Medal of the Legion of Honor and went on to set two offshore 24-hour distance sailing records in 2006. “I kept thinking that if only I’d had a kite on board, it would have been a much better way of returning to France,” he says today, “and how useful a kite could be generally in an emergency, and also for cutting down fuel consumption.”

Advantages

In exploring alternatives to the vast amounts of pollution that bigger boats cause through fuel consumption, sails set a historic precedent – at least when the wind can be fully be exploited. There are, however, a number of advantages that kites have over sails, not least the fact that they don’t require a mast that is always vulnerable to the elements.

“They are also easy to pack away into a relatively small container on board when not in use,” said Yves Parlier. “On bigger cargo ships and container vessels there is certainly no place for a mast on the bridge between the cockpit and the front of the boat. It would cause too much of an obstruction. A kite, on the other hand, could be packed away into a container and would cause no such obstruction when flying above the vessel.”

There are also considerable aerodynamic advantages to be gained from the kite being flown at height above the vessel, through the exploitation of drag, which Parlier has researched in detail, assisted by his son, Nico, who is the 2017 Formula Kite World Champion with a new tubeless kite using skytex 27.

LibertyKite

With a EUR 15 million grant from regional authorities for development work, and beyond the Sea has now reached the stage of launching its first product, the LibertyKite, intended as an emergency system for small boats of up to 18 metres or so in length. “The fabric we are currently producing for the LibertyKite is a lightweight, high tenacity polyester ripstop fabric that is specially woven and finished in-house by Porcher Industries,” said Daniel Costantini, Sports and Leisure, Head of Sales.

“The LibertyKite is a very simple system which doesn’t need an auto-pilot or electronics, but it could be very useful if a mast should break or an engine fails,” said Parlier. “In fact, it could save your life, or that of your boat, allowing you to steer clear of any dangers and get back to shore. It’s very robust, but also extremely light and packs very small.”

In the long-term, however, he is envisaging electronically-controlled kites of up to 2,000 square metres in size to become part of a new hybrid propulsion system for cargo ships.

Challenges

For Porcher Industries, this poses challenges relating to more than simple scale. “We are developing proprietary fabrics based on a new fibre for the larger kites for cargo ships, specifically to improve the resistance of the material which would be very heavily loaded,” explained Daniel Costantini.

“There are many design details to be considered. Some parts of the kite would need to be inflatable in case the kite falls into water, but at the same time, there need to be areas of reinforcement based on composites to protect the structure against potential damage”.

Trials

“We are already now trialling kites of fifty square metres on two 30-metre-long fishing boats off the coasts of Canada and France,” said Parlier. “The system employed is much more complicated than LibertyKite, involving electronics, and an on-board computer connected to the motor. It’s intended for much more automatic and high-performance operations, but I don’t want to say too much about how it works yet, as it’s very much an essential part of our intellectual property, but we have developed accurate software simulation for how the bigger kites can be operated and how they will respond to wave movements.”

“There are challenges on both the technical and financial sides, but we intend to have a viable system within a couple of years. After that, it’s a question of convincing the cargo companies of the system’s viability. We believe it can save around 20% of the fuel costs involved.”

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Source: Innovation in Textiles

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