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The Future of Shipping Is ... Sails?

Ocean transport giants such as Maersk and Cargill have a new take on a very old idea that might help big boats reduce their carbon footprints.
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Photo illustration: 731; Photos: Alamy; Getty Images

Around 3500 B.C., Egyptian mariners suspended woven reeds on ships to capture wind to propel boats along the Nile River, inventing the first sailboats and enabling maritime commerce. Now modern-day shippers are adapting this ancient technology in a bid to address the very 21st century challenge of greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of the biggest names in the maritime trade are investing in retrofitting or building newly designed vessels that harness wind energy to meet pollution-busting goals and emissions standards. From giant kites that pull cargo ships to inflatable sails to spinning rotors that create lift, the move toward wind-powered commercial vessels will generate a doubling of such ships on the water by 2023. Although starting from a low base, global shipping giants including Cargill, Maersk Tankers, and Mitsui are tacking into the wind to cut emissions, betting on the revived technology to help meet the industry goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the global fleet by 50% by 2050, from 2008 levels.