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Finnish ship designers blaze trail to Arctic maritime routes

Aker Arctic testing model for Arctic research vessel

Finnish ship designers blaze trail to Arctic maritime routes
Finnish ship designers blaze trail to Arctic maritime routes
By Jarmo Aaltonen
      In southern parts of Finland at least, cocktail glasses have been the only places where any amount of ice has been conspicuous until recently this year. This does not greatly bother Mikko Niini, however, as his eyes are fixed on areas much further to the north.
      The ice cover in northern sea areas has been growing thinner with each passing year, making the Arctic Ocean an increasingly lucrative option as a shipping route for cargo vessels.
      “Already now the thickness of ice is down to a level where we can operate with our existing vessels”, says Niini, Managing Director of Aker Arctic Technology.
Aker Arctic is a consulting and engineering firm which has designed most of the icebreakers now operating in different countries. If global warming has led to thinner ice in northern seas, it is a good thing for Aker Arctic.
      Exploiting the natural resources of the polar region requires vessels that can push through the ice on their own. Icebreakers are also needed there.
“It is not often that one gets to sail through ice 2.5 metres thick in an icebreaker”, Niini muses while watching a model vessel move forward in a 75-metre research pool in the Vuosaari district of Helsinki.
      The three-metre-long model of a research vessel is used to ascertain how the polar research icebreaker Aurora Borealis, which Aker Arctic is offering the EU countries, can cope in Arctic ice.
      There have even been suggestions that the polar ship might be placed under the EU flag, but international maritime regulations do not allow this: the ship would have to be under the flag of one of the member states.
The German government unexpectedly donated EUR 5 million for the project, and the German company Wärtsilä Ship Design offered its own ship version. However, the European Commission did not approve the estimated price tag of EUR 800 million, so Aker Arctic was asked for an alternate offer.
      Aker Arctic developed a “slim version”, costing less than EUR 500 million. A model of the planned ship is the one that is being tested in the Vuosaari ice pool.
      Niini will present the test results next week at a conference in the Norwegian city of Tromsø. If the company’s offer is approved at the EU, Aker will be paid for its design, and shipyards will be allowed to compete for the actual construction of the Aurora Borealis.
Taking part in the polar ship project are ten EU countries and 15 research organisations. The Aurora Borealis is designed to study the polar regions at all times of the year for three months at a time in ice with a thickness of up to 2.5 metres. The ship will be able to drill samples from the sea bottom at depths of several kilometres.
      The Aker Arctic version of the ship is 163 metres long with enough room to accommodate a crew of 127. The aim is to make the ship the world’s most modern research vessel with several laboratories, research equipment and two helicopters.
      The ship would have Wärtsilä diesel engines with an energy output of 58 megawatts, as well as three of the newest types of Azipod polar propellers produced by ABB.
The research vessel project is not the only one that Aker Arctic is working on – it is not even the most important.
      Niini says that the most important project involves the LNG gas ships that have been under development for about two years on behalf of Novatek, Russia’s largest private gas producer. The aim of these massive ships is to transport natural gas from the Jamal Peninsula to Europe, and also directly to Asia. The Jamal area produces 85 per cent of Russia’s natural gas.
      A quarter of the world’s known oil reserves are located inside the Arctic Circle, but in addition to oil and natural gas, there are considerable mineral resources on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Geologists recently reported finding a vast platinum deposit in the Kola Peninsula with a value estimated at 27 million US dollars.
At present there are 23 Russian and foreign companies involved in exploration and production projects of the Russian continental shelf. A UN conference on maritime law is to be held this year on the sharing of natural resources of the continental shelf, where countries with shoreline on the Arctic Ocean are expected to argue over the distribution of the wealth. Also hoping to get in on the action is China, who feels that the common natural resources should be divided, surprise surprise, on the basis of the population of the countries in question.
      Aker Arctic knows the waters well; when the Soviet Union was dissolved, the company rushed to map out the sea areas which led to the creation of the most extensive database of ice conditions of various seas.
      The information is now being used in the ice laboratory. “The Russians appreciate the reliability, products, and technology of the Finns, and they are more open-minded that the Americans – or Finnish officials”, Niini says.
In addition to oil, gas and minerals there is interest in the Northeast Passage, a shipping route connecting Europe and Asia, which was first sailed by a Finnish explorer, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1878.
      In 2010 the passage was sailed by ten vessels, and last year there were 41, two of them Finnish. Nearly a million tons of cargo were shipped on the route.
      “We are no longer far from the start of regular commercial transport. The trip takes seven days, while it would take 40 days on the route through the Suez Canal”, Niini says.
The search is on in western parts of Greenland and on the north coast of Canada, where the oil company Shell has leased the Finnish multifunction icebreakers Fennica and Nordica for three years.
      An icebreaker designed by Aker Arctic which moves sideways was recently sold to the Russians. The papers of a larger version destined for Alaska are on the drawing board.
      In this kind of icebreaker, one of the sides is straight, the other one is curved. The ship, which can also be used for fighting oil spills moves forward at a 45-degree angle and creates a channel 45 metres wide. Normally it would take two icebreakers to achieve the same.
If trade in icebreakers were to take off, it would probably be a business worth hundreds of millions of euros.
      “New products have also created new markets”, Niini says.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 8.1.2012

JARMO AALTONEN / Helsingin Sanomat