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Setting a solar sail

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An Australian inventor uses not one but two natural energy sources in this seaworthy solution.

For centuries ships were powered by the wind, then steam and diesel engines took over adding to the world’s carbon pollution.

Now, thanks to Australian inventor Robert Dane, wind power is back in vogue but this time boosted by the power of the sun.

His multi-award winning invention is a solar sail that can capture both wind and solar energy and it’s already used in ferries in Australia, China and Hong Kong.

He first patented SolarSails in 1996 and the BBC referred to it as “possibly the greatest evolution in boats since the advent of steam”.

Solar sailPhoto © SolarSail

Robert explains how he came up with the idea and some future uses for his technology.

It started when I was watching a solar boat race and the competing boats used energy from the sun but ignored the wind.

I thought ‘how do you add the wind in a seaworthy way?’

And I was saying over and over to myself ‘how would you build a solar sail? But it has to be able to adapt itself to the angle of the sun and the wind’.

About six months later I thought a winged sail could be the answer.

Then I started reading about wings and the eureka moment came when I read that insects evolved wings as solar collectors and then used them to fly.

I thought ‘oh well boats can evolve wings as solar collectors and use them to sail’. So then with a group of friends we went back and competed in the following year’s solar race with a boat that could angle its panels to the sun and wind and we won that race by five laps.

It was an incredible high but there was a period of about 18 months afterwards where we were not actually able to take it to the next level.

Then we meet some fantastic people in June of 1999 that meant that we could raise some money.

Along the way we got a million dollar grant from the Australian government and that was really how we got started with our first vessel – a passenger ferry in Sydney, which won the Australian Design Award of the Year in 2001 and today continues to operate successfully on Lake Macquarie.

When oil hit $140 a barrel we got orders for four ferries for Hong Kong and another for Shanghai.

My current focus is working with the University of Wollongong adapting the technology to use the sun and the wind to power unmanned drones that can do oceanography, hydrography and ocean monitoring and surveillance.

The future is to attach giant opening steel sails to cargo ships to dramatically cut fuel costs and reduce emissions.

This May I was the opening speaker at an international marine propulsion conference in Launceston.

My speech was about retro-fitting wing sails on to Cape-size bulk carriers.

We’re talking about big industrial steel sheets in the shape of a sail that can be angled to the wind.

These sails are slightly bigger than an A380’s wings and they fold down on to the deck so that they’re out of the way for cargo handling and visibility in the harbour but when you’re out at sea you can put them up and sail.

We’ve proven through studying data from NASA that there’s an enormous amount of energy out there in the wind which could be used to assist a modern commercial ship.

If we can harness that in a seaworthy way, which we think we can, then bulk carriers can motor-sail and save 20 to 40% of their fuel.

The wing sails would pay for themselves in one to two years which is absolutely compelling from a return on investment point of view.

There’s great interest and I’ve already been to Lloyds and DMV and the next step is to trial one sail on one ship – so that’s what we’re talking to various ship owners about.

The first application right now with current technology is just steel sails using the wind only but there are people developing paint-on Nano solar technology so one day when we can paint the Nano solar panels on to our sails we’ll do that and we’ll be able to angle this enormous area directly to the sun.

I believe our climate is changing and based on the evidence there is a 99% chance that we humans are responsible for it.

But even if there was only a 50% chance we were responsible for it – should we take the risk of doing nothing?

What’s the worst thing about being energy efficient and reducing pollution?

All the obvious things to do to prevent climate change are actually beneficial to us in many ways.

It would be fantastic if the people who are climate change sceptics were right.

But if they are wrong and we do nothing- then we’re all in big trouble.

Show your support for renewable energy by signing our Seize Your Power pledge now and if you’re in Australia, make sure you connect to the 2 Degrees Project to see how close you are to climate change.

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