A new age of polar research

06 Jul 2015
The 'slimmed-down' design developed by Aker Arctic for the pan-European Aurora Borealis research icebreaker project

The 'slimmed-down' design developed by Aker Arctic for the pan-European Aurora Borealis research icebreaker project

Investment in icebreaking research ships is gathering pace, prompted by the need to provide higher-performance replacements for long-serving vessels, and also by mounting strategic interest in a polar presence. David Tinsley reports.

A raft of projects and tentative plans for powerful icebreakers to conduct multi-disciplinary research and undertake scientific logistic operations in the Arctic and Antarctic has provided a fillip to specialists in ice-going vessel design, engineering, instrumentation and construction. The technical advances achieved over recent years have opened up new possibilities for countries to realise national ambitions with regard to scientific endeavour through multi-functional, high-endurance research ‘platforms’.

The Antarctic provides the focus for many of the current or envisaged newbuild programmes. As observed by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR): “Antarctic and Southern Ocean science is vital to understanding natural variability, the processes that govern global change and the role of humans on Earth and the climate system. The potential for new knowledge to be gained from future Antarctic science is substantial.”

The Antarctic Treaty allows only scientific activities and forbids exploitation and military activities, superseding any territorial claims. Nonetheless, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the UK have such claims on the ‘white continent’, and many others have an interest in its potential resource wealth. Oil reserves alone are reckoned to be considerably in excess of those of some leading producing countries.

True intentions

All concerned vow that polar intentions are true to the treaty, and that they maintain or seek a bridgehead by way of scientific and expeditionary research. At least 30 countries operate either year-round research stations or summer posts or both on Antarctica and nearby islands. Logistic support alone requires a substantial fleet of ice-capable vessels.

While the goal of the treaty is to protect Antarctica for the wellbeing of humanity and encourage scientific research, there is a school of thought that the drive to exploit natural resources ever deeper into the Arctic region, and closer towards the North Pole, could be the harbinger of change. The Antarctic Treaty comes up for review in 2048, and that will mean reconsideration of the protocol banning mineral resource exploitation.

To some observers, the fact that numerous countries have plans to upgrade or develop Antarctic research assets suggests that the Arctic situation may be replicated in the Antarctic at some stage. Certainly, the widening interest within South America, and that of China, India and Russia in strengthening or establishing a permanent southern polar presence, helps fuel this view.

In a South American context, Argentina and Chile have the longest and most consolidated presence in Antarctica, and have claims to substantial portions of the Antarctic peninsula.

Argentina is going ahead with a government project for a designated ‘special purpose ship’, intended primarily to support the country’s Antarctic stations through the transport of equipment and scientific personnel, but also to serve as a research platform. Under a contract with Aker Arctic Technology, the concept design was completed at the end of February this year, and final design work will be undertaken in close cooperation with the Argentine authorities and the still to be announced Chinese shipbuilding contractor.

In preliminary form, Argentina’s envisaged polar ship will be of about 131.5m in length overall, approximately 24m in breadth, and of 8.3m maximum draught.

South American ambitions

A Finnish marine industrial connection preceded the Aker Arctic assignment; the navy’s polar icebreaker ARA Almirante Irizar is a product of the Finnish shipbuilding industry, having been delivered by the former Wartsila-owned Helsinki yard in 1978. Until a fire put the diesel-electric vessel out of operation in 2007, Almirante Irizar was used in the annual campaigns to rotate personnel and re-supply the Argentine Antarctic outposts, and to conduct and support scientific endeavours in Antarctica.

Chile announced last year that an initial US$150m had been approved towards a plan to have an 8,000 tonne displacement polar icebreaker built on home ground by ASMAR with foreign technical assistance. The vessel contemplated would signal a new era of Chilean scientific research as well as undertaking logistic operations in the Antarctic region, where the country has four permanent bases.

Meanwhile, Peru has initiated a newbuild scheme, choosing a Spanish shipyard contractor and a Norwegian designer. The polar oceanographic research vessel has been ordered through the Peruvian Navy from Construcciones Navales P.Freire, which delivered the UK’s latest ‘blue water’ ocean exploration ship, the 100m Discovery in 2013.

As the replacement for the 1978-built Humboldt, the newbuild will be a larger ship, at 95m, and will undertake research expeditions to Antarctica, where Peru has a base, as well as conducting oceanographic work in Peruvian waters. The contract is thought to be worth close to $100m, and the production programme calls for the final trials phase to begin before the end of 2017.

The new, diesel-electric Peruvian ship will draw on the same template as that used for the UK’s Discovery, in the form of Skipsteknisk’s ST-344 design. However, the two differ in mission, user and class requirements, not least in the Peruvian vessel’s Polar Class PC7 categorisation. Reflecting the potential scale of expeditionary missions, the latter will be arranged with accommodation for a total crew and researcher complement of 110.

Chinese commitment

Colombia, which launched its first Antarctic expedition in 2013, has also laid plans for establishing a permanent presence, backed by the procurement of an ice-going research ship.

China has three permanent research stations on Antarctica and is making a major commitment to its scientific standing and polar presence through a project for a new research icebreaker. Aker Arctic Technology was entrusted with the conceptual and basic design phases, and it is clear from what has been released by the Finnish specialist that the envisaged vessel will rank among the most capable and sophisticated in the sector.

The basic design phase has yet to be completed, but the authorities’ intention from the start has been to undertake construction in China, to give a further string to the bow of the industry there. Responsibility for detailed design has been entrusted to MARIC, China’s governmental design office. Although no details have been forthcoming to date as to the selected shipbuilding contractor, a Shanghai yard is understood to have been nominated.

With a length overall of about 122m, the nascent vessel will apply the double-acting principle by virtue of twin thrusters in conjunction with a special hull form. Anticipated performance running ahead or astern is thereby an ability to break level ice not less than 1.5m in thickness with a snow covering of 0.2m, while making two to three knots. A key target of the Aker Arctic designers was to achieve a bow form offering good open-water characteristics as well as meeting the requisite high standard of icebreaking.

Drawing energy from four main generating sets, the combined propulsive power of the two pods will be around 15MW, and two skegs in the aftship will afford protection to the propulsors from multi-year ice blocks. In open water, the ship is expected to be able to attain 12 knots on a single main genset engine, and 15 knots on two engines, while all four engines will be needed for ice-forcing in the toughest conditions. Ice class will be PC3 and the vessel will have dual classification from China Classification Society (CCS) and Lloyd’s Register (LR).

Logistics role

The newbuild will also have a logistic role in ensuring re-supply of Antarctic stations, a task that currently falls to China’s only icebreaker, the Xuelong, purchased from the Ukraine in 1993. Accommodation will be provided for 90 persons. The project has been instigated by the State Oceanic Administration of China, the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration and the Polar Research Institute of China.

India has a longer track record than many in scientific expeditions to Antarctica, where it has two stations. The Ministry of Earth Sciences has announced plans to build a research-cum-supply vessel for Antarctic, Arctic, Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean operations. Not only would this obviate the country’s reliance on chartered polar ships, it would also introduce a scientific research capability given the unsuitability for oceanographic studies of the basically ice-class cargo vessels currently used to transport expedition personnel, equipment and stores to Antarctica.

The UK’s £200m-plus project for a new state-of-the-art, polar research ship and related infrastructure is reaching a seminal stage, with July 27 having been stipulated by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) as the closing date for tenders from shipyards. The vessel will rank among the largest and most capable worldwide, and will have the dual role of ensuring re-supply of the UK’s five Antarctic research stations, maintained by NERC’s British Antarctic Survey, and of undertaking multi-disciplinary science in both polar regions.

After a review and evaluation process, eight of the 28 shipyards which expressed interest in tendering were shortlisted. Following the subsequent withdrawal of two from the competition, six shipbuilders are expected to tender. The candidates are Construcciones Navales P.Freire, whose track record includes the aforementioned Discovery, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Sembawang, the Fincantieri-owned Vard Group, and UK contenders Babcock International and Cammell Laird. A contract award is to be made in November this year.

Replacing Shackleton

The vessel will ultimately fulfil the roles of two UK polar ships, James Clark Ross and Ernest Shackleton, and is expected to be ready for service in June 2019. The concept design has been drawn up by UK naval architecture consultancy Houlder, and was developed in an iterative manner in response to feedback from the user community and Science User Consultation panel.

Employing a diesel-electric power and propulsion system, the newbuild will be of some 125-130m in length and will be able to push deeper into pack ice than any previous British research vessel. The outline operational specification requires the ship to be able to sustain a three-knot speed while breaking through ice floes up to 2m thick, and to offer a maximum endurance of 80 days, or 60 days in polar regions.

The new project arises from a case made to government, and accepted, that an increased fleet technological and operational capability was needed to ensure the future international competitiveness of UK polar science and know-how. The new vessel will also enhance the British presence in South Atlantic waters at a time of increasingly vociferous Argentinean sovereignty claims to the Falkland Islands as well as on Antarctica.

Meanwhile, yards are now chasing the German requirement for a successor to the 1982-built research icebreaker Polarstern. The latter is operated in Arctic and Antarctic assignments under the aegis of Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, which will be responsible for the future icebreaker, due to enter service in 2019. The newbuild will be federal government owned and funded.

Luebeck-based Reederei F.Laeisz has been retained to provide design and construction consultancy services for the project, and has also been contracted to manage the planned vessel together with Germany’s Neumayer-Station III in Antarctica over the period 2019-2025. The company assumed management of the Polarstern 19 years ago.

Norway has already embarked on a major investment in its marine polar research capabilities, centred on a newbuild vessel of around 100m in length overall, expected to be in operation by mid-2017.

Norway's prince

Contracted from Fincantieri by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (IMR), the Kronprins Haakon will undertake Arctic and Antarctic deployments, carrying scientific instrumentation and equipment for oceanography, marine biology, bottom sampling and coring, fish stock monitoring and trawling, and ROV and AUV operations. The project was instigated by the Norwegian government, and has an overall value of EUR 175m($199m).

The vessel has been specified to DNV GL Polar 10 icebreaker class, and is based on the NVC 395 POLAR design from Rolls-Royce Marine, with detailed design performed by Fincantieri. Kronprins Haakon has been laid down at the Riva Trigoso-Muggiano integrated naval yard near La Spezia, and will be transferred to one of Fincantieri’s VARD sites in Norway for final outfitting and sea trials.

She will be owned by the state through the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) and operated by the IMR. Intended primary users will be the Arctic University of Norway, in Tromsø, for an estimated 50% of voyage time, the NPI (30%), and IMR (20%).

The diesel-electric vessel has been conceived for year-round operation in second-year ice and pressure ridges, powered and reinforced to maintain five knots through 1m-thick ice and up to 12 knots when breaking ice of 0.4m thickness. Foredeck scantlings provide for heavy search and rescue helicopters, and a hangar will accommodate two smaller helicopters.

Rolls-Royce is supplying the four main diesel gensets, using Bergen B32:40-series machinery, together with a power electric system, azimuth propulsion thrusters, and Polar-grade tunnel thrusters.

The complete hydroacoustic systems suite to be delivered by Kongsberg Maritime will enable ecosystem assessment of the entire water column. The outfit will include split-, single-, multi-beam and bathymetric multi-beam echo sounders, omni-directional fisheries sonar, multi-beam sonar, sub-bottom profiler and acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCPs).

‘Aurora Slim’

With much of the preparatory funding and design input having come from Germany, an EU-promoted collaborative project started a decade ago had fostered the concept of a multi-disciplinary European polar research icebreaker incorporating core drilling facilities. However, due to what was regarded as an unacceptably high cost, the proposed Aurora Borealis design was not implemented. Instead, a ‘downsized’, lower-cost option was investigated. This has resulted in the Aurora Slim solution developed, designed and tested by Aker Arctic Technology.

Instigated under the European Research Icebreaker Consortium (ERICON-AB) project, Aurora Boreal is had an estimated build and commissioning cost of EUR 800m. The capital investment for the ‘slimmed-down’ version is reckoned at no more than EUR 500m, without compromising the scientific goals behind the original concept, including year-round polar operational capability.

The latest proposal champions the use of PC1-class podded electric propulsors. Whereas the 65,000t-displacement Aurora Borealis was foreseen with three fixed-pitch propellers driven by three 27MW electric propulsion motors, the 42,000t-displacement Aurora Slim would incorporate triple 15MW Azipod units. Instead of six 4.5MW retractable transverse thrusters, two or three of 3.5MW are envisaged. Installed power has been reduced from 101MW to 58.5MW.

A significant advance is represented by the provisions to run the Aurora Slim for up to one week on LNG fuel, stored in special tank containers on deck.

Besides the lower capital requirement, Aker Arctic has indicated that operating costs for the ‘slim’ version would be nearly 45% less than for the initial, mould-breaking vessel design.

The original requirements as to icebreaking performance are similar, to the effect that Aurora Slim would be able to maintain two to three knots through 2.5m level ice, and keep station in thick ice. A principal modification compared to the previous design is the replacement of the pre-eminent drilling rig by removable equipment, with a substantial reduction in drilling depth to a few hundred metres, and the adoption of just one moonpool rather than two.

The studies into a pan-European solution had been predicated on the technological and scientific benefits to the EU of having a ship able to penetrate the deep Arctic to conduct the broadest range of tasks. Limitations have hitherto been presented by the unsuitability of available ice margin vessels for year-round Arctic deployments and by the operational constraints on many existing ships imposed by respective national assignments.

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