Michelin, the company best known for making tires, on Tuesday presented the latest version of an inflatable wing sail system that could help decarbonize oil tankers, vehicle carriers, and other sea freight, as well as some pleasure craft. 

Called Wing Sail Mobility (WISAMO), the project is a collaborative venture between Michelin Research & Development and two Swiss inventors of the concept. It uses an inflatable sail and telescopic mast to harness the wind, boosting a ship’s fuel efficiency by up to 20%. 

One large cargo ship can emit as much as 50 million cars. Global shipping adds up to nearly 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and about 90% of the world’s freight is transported via the sea, so it could have a significant impact in long-term goals to decarbonize shipping. 

Because the mast is retractable it doesn’t present some of the issues that a sail-ship mast otherwise would—with bridges and port clearances, for instance—and the company says that it can be used on every maritime shipping route. 

WISAMO wind-sail project - Michelin

WISAMO wind-sail project - Michelin

While electric container ships and zero-emission oil tankers are on the way—oh, the oxymoron—the WISAMO project could provide a more affordable way to dramatically lower the carbon dioxide emissions of merchant ships. It could be deployed as a retrofit or built into new ships. 

Using the wind to transport oil, or gasoline cars, wouldn’t be the first unusual application of new technology to transport the outmoded. In an odd twist, a fully electric cargo ship we reported on in 2017 made it more cost-effective to get coal to riverside power plants in China. 

Michelin says that the WISAMO project will be fitted to a merchant ship in 2022 and undergo a trial phase, with production due to follow.  

As “megawatt-scale” hydrogen fuel cells are looking increasingly like the power systems of the future for massive ocean-going freighters, such a sail system is both a natural complement and a way to help companies without the budget for new ships.