Michelin wants to put inflatable sails on ships to boost fuel economy

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Michelin demummifies the technology that helped the Roman Republic defeat the Carthaginian fleet in 256 BC, to allow the largest ships to roam the planet’s oceans more efficiently. It launched a project called Wing Sail Mobility (WISAMO) to create an automated, inflatable sail system to reduce fuel consumption.

Swiss inventors helped the French tire manufacturer develop the sails. Computer-generated images released by Michelin show a pair of sails whose shape is reminiscent of the Bibendum mascot used for decades. They can be installed on most merchant and pleasure vessels, either as original equipment for new construction or as retrofit for existing boats.

Bulk carriers and oil tankers are among the types of ships that can be equipped with the WISAMO system. It is a relatively simple technology. If there is no wind, or if there is a low bridge, the sails are neatly folded and stowed above the deck. When the wind picks up, they deploy at the touch of a button thanks to a telescopic mast and air compressor; no need to pull ropes, which is good, as it would be difficult to find crew members who can rig on a sailing ship. The sails reduce fuel consumption, but they are not designed to just power boats.

Fitting sails can reduce a ship’s fuel consumption by 10 to 20%, early estimates suggest. Although sailing has been around for millennia, Michelin’s take on the concept is inspired by airplane wings, so it has a double surface. The performance is therefore much better than that of a traditional sail, according to Michelin engineer Bruno Fragniere.

Michelin expects to begin testing the WISAMO system on a merchant vessel in 2022. If everything goes according to plan, the sails will go into production at the end of the pilot phase. It is still too early to say who will be using the system.

Other manufacturers outside the boating industry have experimented with sails in recent years. Paris-based carmaker Renault linked guns to Neoline to add sails to cargo ships in 2018, though the technology was more like traditional sails than what Michelin has revealed. At the time, the intention was to start testing the sails in 2021 or 2022.