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post #1 of 17 Old 02-26-2014 Thread Starter
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Sailing a technological breakthrough?

I came across an interesting quote today while researching something non sailing.:

Technologist and inverter George Dyson was asked what innovation did Dyson most hope to see during his time in the phase-space of the living? He had obviously thought about this before, and answered immediately: “The return of sailing ships as a commercially viable transport system.” Even in the days of cloth sails and hemp rope, he said, clipper ships could convert 60 percent of the raw energy of the wind into useful work. With modern materials and design, they could capture more energy than they used en route. “When a fleet of ships got to port, they could not only deliver cargo but even put energy into the grid.” This is how innovators think.
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post #2 of 17 Old 02-26-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

I hope that they can figure it all out. When I go on a long passage it is astonishing to think about how much energy has gone into creating all those waves, along with winds and currents you can't see.

Finishing our major refit. Our trip to Newfoundland is off because it is too late. Hoping to go to the North Channel instead.
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post #3 of 17 Old 02-26-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

Well, I kind of hate to play the curmudgeon, but I have to say that I'm not seein' it.

For ships to ever put energy back into the grid, they'd have to store it while they are sailing. For now, at least, that would mean a huge bank of batteries, much larger than needed to operate the ship. And that takes room. And a cargo ship needs to use its room to carry cargo. This is a business, after all.

So the only way this would work is if they were paid for the electricity they put into the grid at the end of their voyage, and if that payment was more than they could have made by carrying more cargo instead of a big bank of batteries. I'm just not seeing the numbers adding up.

Maybe someday, when electrical generation methods are WAAAY more efficient than they are now, and batteries are WAAAAY smaller than they are now... But then, if those changes happen, then so much will have changed that having ships add electricity to the grid could be completely pointless. It will be a whole different equation, so who knows what will make sense at that point?

Don't get me wrong. I would love to see the return of sailing cargo ships. But at this point, I think Dyson's comments are just wild-eyed speculation from a dreamer rather than any sort of innovation from someone who has actually given this any serious thought.
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post #4 of 17 Old 02-26-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

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Originally Posted by denverd0n View Post
Well, I kind of hate to play the curmudgeon, but I have to say that I'm not seein' it.

........

Skeptic!! Spoilsport!

You're probably right, but who knows? Development of even better 'super capacitors' could change the energy storage game...

Ron

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".. there is much you could do at sea with common sense.. and very little you could do without it.."
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post #5 of 17 Old 02-26-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

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Originally Posted by denverd0n View Post
Maybe someday, when electrical generation methods are WAAAY more efficient than they are now, and batteries are WAAAAY smaller than they are now... .
I think that was kind of the point that Dyson was making...
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post #6 of 17 Old 02-26-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

I want to skipper a 99-gross ton coastal lumber schooner (which would fit within my seldom-used license).

Wait..has that been done already?

I think if the price of fuel went way way up, we could see some local sail routes for low-value cargos that don't shift when heeled, and the delivery time is flexible (as is the wind). But would it pay? again, I think not, unless fuel becomes way too expensive and all the large ships are slow-steaming at 6 knots.

And I hate to say it, but beautiful hull forms that sail nicely don't hold that much cargo compared to block-coefficient tankers and bulk carriers.
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post #7 of 17 Old 02-26-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

Seems to me that if fuel costs (whether actual cost or carbon costs) goes up there could be a real market for slow travel cargo ships. Kind of like FedEx, pay more to get it faster, or save money and let the wind bring it. There seem to be lots of goods that could be moved by wind power as long as schedules allowed for it. Could be some wind generators/solar/sail power combination that could keep an average of say 6 or 7 knots. How fast do we really need to get our Tickle Me Elmo dolls to the US? Lots of goods that have long self life, and sales life that could go "slow boat."

I think more than technology it will take a big economic challenge to make it happen. It seems to be that it takes a real economic need to push the technology.
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post #8 of 17 Old 02-26-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

SkySails GmbH has introduced a 'sail' they call a towing kite. This is in addition to their engines and has nothing to do with ships generating power they can share in port; but still a little interesting.

Back in 2006 or so Google filed a patent for putting data centers on ships. The up and down motion would force sea water into pipes that can help cool server racks and generate power. I assume in this case the ship is stationary and isn't intended to sail around.
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post #9 of 17 Old 02-27-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

Sailing cargo ships are probably not in the future; see nolatom's post #6. I'm guessing hydrogen, derived by solar-powered water fission, then re-combined in fuel cells, will be the fuel of the future.

People who are interested in electricity generation should understand a few things about generation efficiency:

1) Thermal conversion, like coal-burning steam boilers with steam turbines is constricted by a fairly low theoretical efficiency. And by 'theoretical' I don't mean 'speculative,' I mean maximum possible, if all other losses are eliminated. Thermal conversion, even with it's low theoretical efficiency, is OK if there is lots of cheap fuel and society is willing to accept the by-products of combustion or other heat source (like nuclear waste).

2) If you have a clean and free energy source, like wind or solar radiation, the conversion efficiency doesn't matter so much from the viewpoint of fuel consumption. It does matter, however, in terms of the size of the generation plant required to convert wind or light into a significant amount of electricity. This brings us to:

3) Renewable energy sources are so diffuse that even if the efficiency of conversion was 100%, we would still need to commit large portions of the terrestial surface to collection equipment. I'm not an expert on cargo ships, but I am an expert on buildings. We could cover our non-residential buildings with 100% efficient photovoltaic arrays, but still need auxillary power. There is simply not enough incident light on buildings' surfaces to power the loads that we are accustomed to. I'm guessing the same goes for cargo ships. They will need all the wind they can catch just to move. Any other energy collection will reduce their speed. This leads to the conclusion:

4) We simply must reduce our power demand or continue to burn fossil fuels until we no longer can, then we will reduce demand by force. Generating and storage efficiency improvements will not save us; continued load side reduction, forced by law if necessary (like illegalizing incandescent light bulbs), is imperative. Anybody who says that reduction in energy consumption will harm the economy is either lying or has believed lies they heard. For the last twenty years, at least, the energy conservation industry has been a robust sector of the free market economy. I know because I'm a person who is making a good living at it. The government subsidies that are supporting otherwise non-supportable activities are ..... well, that's a topic for another discussion.
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Last edited by jwing; 02-27-2014 at 09:31 AM.
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post #10 of 17 Old 02-27-2014
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Re: Sailing a technological breakthrough?

I suspect that the need to move the masts or other sail or kite carrying structures might negate any advantage when the ship gets to port and the cargo has to be removed.
So, I see sails as possibly being amenable to liquid cargo that can be pumped with piping that will not interfere with masts, etc. It cannot be a cargo whose value fluctuates daily as do most petroleum products where time to market can be an issue.
Basically, you've got a specialized solution looking for a unique problem.
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