Hapag-Lloyd studying 4,500 TEU wind-powered boxship concept

German container shipping company Hapag-Lloyd is eyeing a potential 4,500 TEU newbuilding vessel with wind-assisted propulsion as part of the company’s R&D activities involving alternative technologies and fuels.


Earlier this year, the company partnered up with Boris Herrmann and his Team Malizia and launched a concept study for a 4,500 TEU ship with wind-assisted propulsion system. The concept study is expected to be finalized in the coming months and will give the company a basis for the next steps.

“Hapag Lloyd has been working for some time on the issue of wind-assisted ship propulsion and how this could be realised in technical terms. But since this technology isn’t ready for the market yet, we think it’s important to expand our studies on it,” Christoph Thiem, Director Strategic Assets Projects at Hapag-Lloyd, said in an interview.

“Some shipping companies have come up with concept designs for wind-powered container ships that look very futuristic. But, to me, our designs seem more realistic,” Martin Köpke, Manager Regulatory Affairs & Sustainability at Hapag-Lloyd, commented.

As informed, Hapag-Lloyd, which is the world’s fifth-largest container shipping company based on Alphaliner data, has completed the first phase of the concept study in May 2023. This has given the company an initial impression of what this kind of ship could look like.

In summer, the shipping major started phase two which is still ongoing.

“We are using computer simulations to study how this kind of ship would behave under realistic weather conditions in a trade and how much energy we could save there with the support of a sail system. As part of this, we are also looking at the potential of weather-based route optimisation,” Thiem explained.

“On top of that, sensitivity analyses are being carried out. For example, we let the ship sail much more slowly in the simulation and then see how much energy we have saved. We also vary the draughts and see how the ship behaves when it isn’t fully loaded. And we are also investigating what happens if, for example, a sail is damaged or can’t be used.”

Specifically, the current design envisages eight sails with a total sail area of 3,000 square meters. The six rear sails will be extendable, the two front ones retractable. This helps to not hinder cargo operations in port and to protect the sail system from damage as well as to avoid any limitations owing to things like bridges, according to Thiem.

The boxship will mainly be propelled by its engine, and the sail system will only be used to assist propulsion. How much assistance the sail system can provide depends on several factors, such as the ship’s speed and the wind conditions. At slow speeds of 8 to 10 knots (15 to 20 km/h) and with the right wind conditions, the ship can also be propelled using just the sail system. However, the Hapag-Lloyd team has not explored all aspects of this yet.

The liner company added it is in discussions with other companies such as Swiss freight trader Cargill to exchange ideas on wind-assisted propulsion technology. In the future, Cargill will charter fully electric, wind-assisted vessels to reduce emissions.

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At the moment, the team is working with historical weather data for the Conosur service, which sails around South America.

The company said it will be looking at other shipping routes to figure out how it could realize more benefits on other routes using this kind of sailing system.

Apart from exploring the feasibility of alternative technologies on board ships, Hapag-Lloyd is also examining various fuels, aiming to achieve net zero by 2045. The main challenge remains fuel availability and this challenge cannot be tackled without R&D, the company believes.

“What will drive us in the years ahead will be new alternative fuels. These aren’t available yet in the needed quantities and will initially be very expensive. That’s why energy efficiency and alternative technologies, such as using wind power to reduce fuel consumption, are important. Succeeding in these efforts will be crucial if we are to achieve our short- and medium-term goals by 2030,” Köpke pointed out.

“Our main goal is naturally to achieve our sustainability goals. Every tonne of CO2 we save is a good thing. We think it’s important to demystify wind propulsion. To do so, we need to educate people about the cost savings involved and the technology’s viability. How will this impact our operations? Will our crews need additional training? Which regulations need to be observed or even rewritten? In this case, our goal is to replace gut feelings with facts,” he added.

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“In the future, instead of propelling our ships with fossil fuels, we want to use fuels that are produced using electricity generated by renewable energy sources, such as wind energy. But this will require a large number of facilities and processing steps when the fuel is produced and used on board. The result is that 90% of the original wind energy is lost before it even gets to the propeller. A sail system would ensure that the wind energy is directly harnessed and that some of this fuel is saved,” Thiem concluded.

“Ultimately, this is a matter of cost-effectiveness. If we spend more to buy and maintain the sail system than we save on fuel, there’s no upside to having a sail system. We aren’t sure how much these systems will cost, but they definitely won’t be cheap. Another challenge involves the physical space needed on board for a sail system. If we want do transport just as many containers with sails as we do without, we’re going to need a longer ship. And to propel a bigger ship, you need more energy. On top of that, we need to think about the flexibility of the routes.”