When the Shofu Maru bulk carrier sailed into Newcastle Harbour earlier this week, it might not have appeared to be anything particularly out of the ordinary on first glance. 

After all, Newcastle Harbour is one of the busiest in the country. It handles nearly 4700 ship movments and 166 million tonnes of cargo annually, with ships coming and going 12 hours a day, seven days a week. 

But there was something decidedly new and at the same time quite “old school” about the Shofu Maru – and it all has to do with that strange-looking structure at the bow (that’s the front for the non-nautical types!) of the vessel. 

The Shofu Maru’s operator, Japanese Transport Company Mitsui OSK Lines, describes that structure as a Wind Challenger and it’s effectively the modern-day version of a sail for ships carrying huge amounts of bulk goods. 

Constructed out of fibreglass, extendable to 55 metres in height and operated by a special hydraulic system, the sail is designed to reduce fuel use by the Shofu Maru and is expected to cut emissions on a typical Japan-Australia trip by 5 per cent (and on Japan-US trips by 8 per cent). 

That equates to about 25,000 litres less fuel burned while carrying up to 80,000 tonnes of coal back to Japan. 

While Mitsui OSK Lines described the journey as a “world-first”, as the Newcastle Herald reported it’s not entirely without precedent.

Newcastle harbourmaster Newcastle Captain Vikas Bangia told the ABC his pilot team went to Japan for special training and simulations with the Shofu Maru, which came with its own unique challenges when guiding into Port. 

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“I’m excited to be a part of the history, to host and have this vessel … coming in with wind-powered generation,” he said. 

“It can go up to 55 metres in length and gives us a different challenge with the high-windage area in the forward part of the ship.”

Reducing emissions as the world transitions towards net zero is a challenge for the shipping industry, which currently uses more than 300 million tonnes of fossil fuels globally each year. 

There are a variety of initiatives underway around the world to decarbonise cargo shipping. 

BHP announced in 2020 that it was planning to put five LNG-fuelled bulk carriers into use transporting iron ore from WA’s busy Pilbara ports to China. The giant iron ore miner estimated it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the Newcastlemax carrier journeys by more than 30 per cent. 

Meanwhile Yara Pilbara, which produces ammonia at a global scale on WA’s Burrup Peninsula, has entered an agreement with the Pilbara Ports Authority to assess the suitability of ammonia as a shipping fuel. Yara Pilbara recently started building a renewable hydrogen plant, with the aim of producing clean ammonia. 

Yara announced in October 2022 that maritime engineering and technology solutions specialist Lloyd’s Register would undertake a feasibility study into the potential for clean ammonia to be used to refuel ships in the Pilbara. 

Pilbara Ports Authority announced in July that it had again broken its annual throughput record, moving 773.1 million tonnes of cargo in the 2021-22 financial year.  

More than 42 per cent of the world’s iron ore trade and almost seven per cent of LNG trade in 2021-22 passed through Pilbara Ports Authority ports and the authority has identified opportunities to grow iron ore exports alone to 660 million tonnes per annum. 

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