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Sails make a comeback as shipping tries to go green

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As the shipping industry faces pressure to cut climate-altering greenhouse gases, one answer is blowing in the wind.

European and U.S. tech companies, including one backed by airplane maker Airbus, are pitching futuristic sails to help cargo ships harness the free and endless supply of wind power. While they sometimes don’t even look like sails — some are shaped like spinning columns — they represent a cheap and reliable way to reduce CO2 emissions for an industry that depends on a particularly dirty form of fossil fuels.

“It’s an old technology,” said Tuomas Riski, the CEO of Finland’s Norsepower, which added its “rotor sail” technology for the first time to a tanker in August. “Our vision is that sails are coming back to the seas.”

Denmark’s Maersk Tankers is using its Maersk Pelican oil tanker to test Norsepower’s 30 metre (98 foot) deck-mounted spinning columns, which convert wind into thrust based on an idea first floated nearly a century ago.

Finnish startup company Norsepower installed its rotor sail technology on the Maersk Pelican tanker, Aug. 29, 2018, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in the first such installation on a tanker as the shipping industry tries new solutions in an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. (Casper Hariot/Maersk Tankers via Associated Press)

Separately, A.P. Moller-Maersk, which shares the same owner and is the world’s biggest container shipping company, pledged this week to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050, which will require developing commercially viable carbon neutral vessels by the end of next decade.

The shipping sector’s interest in “sail tech” and other ideas took on greater urgency after the International Maritime Organization, the U.N.’s maritime agency, reached an agreement in April to slash emissions by 50 per cent by 2050.

Transport’s contribution to earth-warming emissions are in focus as negotiators in Katowice, Poland, gather for U.N. talks to hash out the details of the 2015 Paris accord on curbing global warming.

1 billion tonnes of CO2 per year

Shipping, like aviation, isn’t covered by the Paris agreement because of the difficulty attributing their emissions to individual nations, but environmental activists say industry efforts are needed. Ships belch out nearly 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, accounting for 2 to 3 per cent of global greenhouse gases. The emissions are projected to grow between 50 to 250 per cent by 2050 if no action is taken.

Notoriously resistant to change, the shipping industry is facing up to the need to cut its use of cheap but dirty “bunker fuel” that powers the global fleet of 50,000 vessels — the backbone of world trade.

The IMO is taking aim more broadly at pollution, requiring ships to start using low-sulfur fuel in 2020 and sending ship owners scrambling to invest in smokestack scrubbers, which clean exhaust, or looking at cleaner but pricier distillate fuels.

A Dutch group, the Goodshipping Program , is trying biofuel, which is made from organic matter. It refuelled a container vessel in September with 22,000 litres of used cooking oil, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 36 tonnes.

In Norway, efforts to electrify maritime vessels are gathering pace, highlighted by the launch of the world’s first all-electric passenger ferry, Future of the Fjords, in April. Chemical maker Yara is meanwhile planning to build a battery-powered autonomous container ship to ferry fertilizer between plant and port.

Ship owners have to move with the times, said Bjorn Tore Orvik, Yara’s project leader.

Building a conventional fossil-fueled vessel “is a bigger risk than actually looking to new technologies … because if new legislation suddenly appears then your ship is out of date,” said Orvik.

Batteries are effective for coastal shipping, though not for long-distance sea voyages, so the industry will need to consider other “energy carriers” generated from renewable power, such as hydrogen or ammonia, said Jan Kjetil Paulsen, an advisor at the Bellona Foundation, an environmental non-government organization. Wind power is also feasible, especially if vessels sail more slowly.

“That is where the big challenge lies today,” said Paulsen.

Wind from different directions

Wind power looks to hold the most promise. The technology behind Norsepower’s rotor sails, also known as Flettner rotors, is based on the principle that airflow speeds up on one side of a spinning object and slows on the other. That creates a force that can be harnessed.

Rotor sails can generate thrust even from wind coming from the side of a ship. German engineer Anton Flettner pioneered the idea in the 1920s but the concept languished because it couldn’t compete with cheap oil.

On a windy day, Norsepower says rotors can replace up to 50 per cent of a ship’s engine propulsion. Overall, the company says it can cut fuel consumption by 7 to 10 per cent.

The technology behind Norsepower’s rotor sails, also known as Flettner rotors, is based on the principle that airflow speeds up on one side of a spinning object and slows on the other. That creates a force that can be harnessed. (Casper Hariot/Maersk Tankers via Associated Press)

Maersk Tankers said the rotor sails have helped the Pelican use less engine power or go faster on its travels across, resulting in better fuel efficiency, though it didn’t give specific figures.

One big problem with rotors is they get in the way of port cranes that load and unload cargo. To get around that, U.S. startup Magnuss has developed a retractable version. The New York-based company is raising $10 million to build its concept, which involves two 15-metre (50-foot) steel cylinders that retract below deck.

“It’s just a better mousetrap,” said CEO James Rhodes, who says his target market is the “Panamax” size bulk cargo ships carrying iron ore, coal or grain.

Wing-like collapsing sail

High tech versions of conventional sails are also on the drawing board.

Spain’s bound4blue’s aircraft wing-like sail and collapses like an accordion, according to a video of a scaled-down version from a recent trade fair. The first two will be installed next year followed by five more in 2020.

The company is in talks with 15 more ship owners from across Europe, Japan, China and the U.S. to install its technology, said co-founder Cristina Aleixendrei.

Ship owners are now “more desperate for new technology to reduce fuel consumption,” she said

Airseas , backed by European plane maker Airbus, plans to deploy its parachute-like automated kite sails on ships ferrying fuselages from France to Alabama starting in 2020. The company predicts that the “Seawing” will reduce fuel use by 20 per cent on the 13-day journey.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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