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Cargo ships could make way under huge 164-foot sails

Sails
Wind Challenger Project

Modern cargo vessels burn millions of gallons of low-grade fuel to get where they're going, but it wasn't so very long ago that their predecessors plied the waves with nothing but the wind in their sails. The Wind Challenger project hopes to combine the two by equipping ships with enormous metal sails. They claim that fuel consumption could be reduced by as much as 30 percent.

Shipping by sea is slow work, but the immense capacity of the ships makes them cost-efficient. But it also means that a large amount of force is necessary to propel them -- much more than was needed for the galleons and clippers of the 19th century. And even the toughest sailcloth would stretch and tear at the size necessary to move something of their bulk.

Wind Challenger Project

But engineers at the University of Tokyo believe that they have created a sail system that can handle the forces involved and make shipping more efficient. The enormous aluminum and fiber-reinforced plastic "sails" would be 164 feet tall, 50 feet wide, and able to retract downwards when not needed. A ship would have several along its length, each independently configurable to maximize thrust from the wind.

Don't expect to see these giant sailboats any time soon, though. They're still highly theoretical, and even if all goes well, it would be 2016 before they can begin trials at sea in a reduced-size prototype. And while the estimated cost (around $2.5 million per sail) would eventually be paid for by the fuel savings, the whole thing may strike the shipping industry as a bit too whimsical.

Watch the video below, captured by Diginfo at the Sea Japan conference in Tokyo, for more information:

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc .