By George Webster for CNN
December 27, 2010 2:14 a.m. EST
London (CNN) -- With its long hull, towering masts and expansive sails, it resembles a schooner from the 19th century. But fitted with a series of high-tech features, this so-called "sail ship" is designed to cut carbon emissions on the high seas today.
Part of a fleet of carbon-neutral, wind-powered sail ships planned by Britain's B9 Energy, it's just one example of how companies are looking to the past for greener alternatives to the gas-guzzling vessels that transport the world's cargo.
When it comes to wind power replacing fuel in shipping vessels, "it's not a question of if, but when," according to David Surplus, the chairman of B9 Energy, Britain's largest windfarm operator.
"By most people's estimates, we have reached peak oil -- sooner or later the fuel will run out and there will simply be no alternative," said Surplus.
Roughly 87% of international trade is carried out by the shipping industry, figures from the International Maritime Organization show.
With the majority of world trade traveling by sea, the shipping industry is responsible for around 4% of global carbon emissions, according to the latest figures available from the United Nations.
B9 claims its vessel will be the first commercially produced merchant ship to harness alternative energy, but it certainly isn't alone in using old-fashioned sail boats to move goods.
"At the moment it's happening on a fairly small, fairly local scale," said Jan Lundberg, founder of Sail Transport Network, a group that promotes sailing as a means of eco-friendly, cost-efficient trade.
But the trend is growing, he said, pointing to examples like El Lago Coffee Company, which uses traditional sail boats to ship Guatemalan coffee beans to the United States, and the Sail Transport Company, a Seattle-based group that uses sailboats to deliver "petroleum-free organic produce."
B9's new eco-friendly ships, planned to be in production by 2012, signify a return to a much more traditional form of merchant shipping. Before diesel-powered steel tankers came to dominate the seas, international trade was conducted on vast, wooden sail ships.
The 100% carbon-neutral freighter will feature automated, self-adjusting sails that respond to minute changes in the wind to maximize propulsion. The boat will also take advantage of "skysail" technology -- a kite-styled towing system currently used on some cargo ships to improve fuel efficiency. …