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Whale tail-powered ships harness wave energy

A whale tail-like device attached to ships is being tested in Norway in a bid to reduce fuel consumption by using wave energy instead.

A group of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) are testing the biological process that propels the whale - its tail. The ‘tail’ looks like wings or fins that are attached to the front of the ship.

The waves that hit the 1:16.57 scale model ship cause it to move, which then make the fins go up and down just like a whale's tail, while the shape of the fins harnesses the energy from the waves to help the ship move forward.  

Eirik Bøckmann, a PhD fellow at the Department of Marine Technology at NTNU, said: “The foils reduced resistance on the ship by between nine and 17 per cent at wave heights of fewer than three metres.

“The resistance can probably be further reduced by optimizing the ship’s hull for the wave foils. The foils also reduced the ship’s heaving and pitching by about the same amount as for resistance.”

Although the long-term goal would be for small boats to use only wave power without relying on motors, the current goal is to cut fuel costs.

However, similar inventions have been tested and used in the past, so Bøckmann’s fins have to undergo scrutiny from Rolls-Royce, collaborator on the project alongside British firms Seaspeed and MOST.

“We need to see how things work and then choose the best way forward based on that,” said Alastair Sim, a technologist at the Rolls-Royce Strategic Research Centre, who is responsible for evaluating new marine technologies and deciding what the power systems business should fund.

A challenge could be the wings’ ability to take a beating and not destabilise the ship. However, according to Sim, experience from similar ideas show that collisions where the wings were damaged will not affect the ship.

The whale tail, attached to the back of the boat that sailed the man-made waves of the 200-metre-long tank, could help meet pressures from the International Maritime Organisation to reduce the environmental impact of ocean liners.

From 2020, ships will only be allowed to use fuel containing maximum 0.1 per cent sulphur in their fuel in certain areas. However, higher-quality fuel with less sulphur is more costly than the one currently used, so by designing a ship that does not rely on heavy oil fuel for power, using waves and a tail for propulsion instead, is worth considering.

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