Russia Is Building $320 Million Icebreakers to Carve New Arctic Routes

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Until factories open on the moon or Mars, there’s no less hospitable an industrial workplace than Yamal LNG, a $27 billion liquid natural gas plant that lies in Russian territory 375 miles north of the Arctic Circle. In the winter, when there’s zero sun for more than two months, temperatures reach -13F on land and -58F in the blinding fog out at sea. But there’s a lot of fossil fuel in this wasteland—44 trillion cubic feet, the equivalent of about 8 billion barrels of oil. So Yamal LNG, controlled by Russian natural gas producer Novatek, has brought together partners to spend an unprecedented sum on a new kind of transportation that will be here much faster than self-driving cars or a casual afternoon spaceflight.

Conventional tankers still can’t handle the ice in the Arctic’s Kara Sea—even though it’s slowly but surely melting because of global warming. It would be extremely costly and time-consuming to provide smaller icebreaking ships as escorts for the tankers. That’s why an international collaboration of ship designers, engineers, builders, and owners is creating a minimum of fifteen 1,000-foot-long, $320 million tankers to break the ice themselves. “The vessel has to be able to perform her tasks in extremely harsh conditions,” says Mika Hovilainen, an icebreaker specialist at Aker Arctic Technology Inc., the Helsinki company that designed the ships. “Systems have to work properly in a very wide range of temperatures.”

The tankers are the widest gas carriers ever built, at about 164 feet. Fully loaded, each carries the same volume as about 1 million barrels of oil. Together, the 15 will be able to carry 16.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas a year—enough to supply half of South Korea’s annual consumption, and close to the eventual output of Yamal LNG. They’ll travel west to Europe in the winter and east to Asia in the summer, moving through ice that’s up to 7 feet thick.

Icebreakers don’t break ice like a barbecue host crushing up a bag from the local convenience store. The ships’ hulls are designed to bend the edge of the ice sheet downward, snapping the sheet with pressure distributed across its surface. In 7-foot-thick ice, the tanker’s stern, which is the end of the ship designed to break heavy ice, faces forward. The first tanker, which began operating in December, can move at 7.2 knots (8.3 mph) stern-forward in thick ice. It was the first vessel to sail the Northern Sea Route from Siberia to the Bering Strait, setting a time to beat of 6½ days.

The ship is part of a much bigger game. “This is perhaps the largest step forward in our developing of the Arctic,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in December at the opening of the Yamal LNG facility. Citing the 18th century poet Mikhail Lomonosov’s prediction that Russia would expand through Siberia, Putin said, “Now we can safely say that Russia will expand through the Arctic this and next century. This is where the largest mineral reserves are located. This is the site of a future transport artery that I am sure will be very good and efficient: the Northern Sea Route.”

Along the routes the carriers will be traveling, the wildly varying ice conditions and depths require a hull that’s both durable and designed specifically to sweep broken ice out of the way. Aker’s engineers meticulously tested their design through simulations and then scale models in a 250-foot-long, 26-foot-deep test basin, crashing model ships into dummy ice to see which parts of the hull needed more or less reinforcement. They also took care not to overarmor the tankers, so as not to slow them down unnecessarily on open water.

Bending ice into submission requires enormous power. The tankers are propelled by three 15-megawatt, natural gas-powered generators—any one of the vessels could power as many as 35,000 U.S. homes. To avoid working the generators too hard, the ships’ massive thrusters, produced by Swedish-Swiss engineering giant ABB Ltd., decouple the engines from the propellers. That is to say, the propellers can spin faster or slower without making the engine “roar up and down,” says Peter Terwiesch, president of ABB’s industrial automation division. Separating the engine and the propeller workload improves fuel efficiency by 20 percent, according to ABB. As a bonus, “you get much better maneuverability,” Terwiesch says. Turning a supertanker has never been easier.

Although LNG tankers have been around for half a century, ferrying fuel from the arid Middle East, there’d been no need for ice-rated models until the past decade, when Norway’s Snohvit and Russia’s Sakhalin-2 projects pioneered gas production in colder climes. Yamal LNG’s port, Sabetta, was designed and built in tandem with the ships that would serve it.

The other trend making the massive icebreakers feasible is humanity’s prodigious climate-warming pollution. The Russian half of the Arctic is becoming passable much more quickly than the U.S.-Canadian side. The carriers chartered to Yamal LNG are supposed to have a life span of 40 years, so they’ll likely still be at sea in the 2040s, when climate scientists project that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer. “Further development of the Arctic and its resources is inevitable,” says Keith Haines, a meteorology professor at the University of Reading who studies Arctic shipping. “The commitment is there.”

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