For centuries, wind power gave humans the ability to travel untold distances and visit incredible new frontiers. It was sailboats that carried explorers across entire oceans, powered war, transportation, trade, and gave people control over the sea. (Well, some control, at least!)
When powerful steam and gas engines arrived on the marine scene in the late 19th century, that control increased. But it came at the expense of sailing and wind power. Though sailboats still existed, it was only for recreation or competition. Never again for transport or shipping. Why use a wind-powered vehicle when motors were faster, stronger, and more reliable.
But that might all be changing.
A new giant sailboat prototype called the OceanBird is aiming to bring wind back to the shipping industry. Though very unlike sailboats of the past, it could lead to a revolution that would lower harmful boat emissions.
Big boats, big emissions...
OceanBird is designed by Swedish company Wallenius Marine which specializes in "sustainable shipping".
Data shows that around 90% of goods are shipped around the world by boat. It's cheaper than flying and allows us to carry goods where trucks and trains can't go. But all that shipping uses a lot of fuel—about 2% of global energy-related carbon emissions come from ships. Maybe that doesn't sound like a lot, but that's still 660 million tonnes of carbon a year.
It would be nice to get that number down! Enter the sails.
For a sailboat to really work as an alternative to modern shipping vessels, it would need to be powerful and capable of carrying tons of cargo. The researchers and engineers behind OceanBird spent years figuring out how to make this possible.
OceanBird would be able to carry 7,000 cars, making it comparable to many ocean cargo ships. Instead of traditional fabric sails, it would be powered by giant retractable wing sails that could extend to 80 metres (262 feet) tall. On the sea, computers would take in data from sensors and help adjust the wings to get the best possible position depending on wind direction and strength.
Though the boat would still be equipped with a 'clean fuel' engine for getting in and out of harbour and for emergencies, it would mostly run on wind power. If it was used around the world, the drop in carbon emissions could be massive.
Hold your breath, wind power
Of course, the OceanBird isn't ready to take flight just yet. It is still just a computer simulation and model that is being developed. Though the team at Wallenius believe they're on to something that works, they don't even expect the design to be complete by next year. A fully functional real-life vessel is hoped for by 2024.
Technology like this is an example of how humanity can fight climate change without completely changing everything about how we live, trade, do business, and travel.
Last year, climate activist Greta Thunberg used a sailboat to get from Europe to New York City for the UN Climate Summit. Her message was simple: big boats are a real problem, but it doesn't mean that we can't see the world and trade goods in other ways.
Check out a simulation of this exciting ship in the video below.