January 31, 2008

 Fair winds and foul

An unsolicited puff for a nice new technology from Hamburg:

MS_Beluga_SkySails_lores.jpg
Photo Skysails

This ship is currently being loaded in Bremen with chipboard production machinery. It sets sail on Saturday for Caracas. Presumably it will follow Columbus' route to catch the trade winds.

Here's a streaming video of a test trip on another merchant ship in the North Sea, which shows shows how the kitesail is actually deployed - much higher than in the photo-op.

The carbon footprint of shipping is plausibly said to be 2% of the world total, more than that of Germany. The designers, Skysails, hope for fuel savings of 15-35% with fully optimised kitesails. So you are looking at a device that could potentially save Belgium's entire footprint. (End of puff.)

But does it work?

The really good news is that the designers, the shipowner, and the captain are not only Germans, but rye-bread and dripping, pickled-herring, Lutheran North Germans: none of that Bavarian flightiness. (Though the charterer, the logistics giant DHL, is based in Bonn.) Some stereotypes are useful. If all these people say it works, it very probably does. Anyway we don't have to make the call: the voyage is I'm sure being watched closely by the club of penny-wise Hamburg and Bremen shipowners.

So much for the good news. Meanwhile the US Congress has cut the $160m American contribution in 2008 to the world's main development project for fusion power, the joint ITER reactor under leisurely construction.

For once, this myopic action doesn't seem to be the fault of the Bush Administration. It's still stupid as well as petty. There are reasons to be sceptical of fusion - it's always been one new Tokamak away from commercial power - but the colossal payoff of success makes a $15bn bet over 10-30 years probably worthwhile even at one-in-ten odds, and a snip at evens. The collaboration reduces the burden to any one country to quite modest levels. Also, right or wrong, the US signed up: and states like individuals should keep their promises absent a truly compelling reason not to. Has the ITER project hit big unexpected problems? Has there been a breakthrough in plasma physics showing that it can't work? The real problem is that it's being built in France.

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