Auriga Leader, a freighter developed by Nippon Yusen K.K. and oil distributor Nippon Oil Corp., took off from a shipyard in the western city of Kobe, officials of the two firms said.
The huge freighter capable of carrying 6,400 automobiles is equipped with 328 solar panels at a cost of 150 million yen (1.68 million dollars), the officials said.
The ship will initially transport vehicles being sent for sale overseas by Japan's top automaker Toyota Motor Corp. The project was conceived before the global economic crisis, which has forced automakers to drastically cut production as sales dwindle.
Company officials said the 60,213-tonne, 200-metre (660-foot) long ship is the first large vessel in the world with a solar-based propulsion system. So far solar energy has been limited to supporting lighting and crew's living quarters.
The solar power system can generate 40 kilowatts, which would initially cover only 0.2 percent of the ship's for propulsion, but company officials said they hoped to raise the ratio.
The shipping industry has come under growing pressure to take part in efforts to curb global warming, which is blamed on carbon emissions.
Estimates say maritime transport accounts for anything from 1.4 percent to 4.5 percent of the world's. But the industry remains largely unregulated due to its international nature.
Nippon Yusen, Japan's largest shipping company, has set a goal of halving its fuel consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions by 2010.
Resource-poor Japan has been looking for ways to reduce its dependency on foreign oil.Original here