New powerful Arc7 LNG carriers could — maybe — eliminate the need for icebreakers on the Northern Sea Route

Aker Arctic and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering have announced the next class of LNG tankers — with capabilities close to those of some icebreakers.

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Sovcomflot’s Christophe de Margerie, the first Arc7 LNG carrier ever built. (Sovcomflot via High North News)

Finnish icebreaker designer Aker Arctic, the company behind many historic and recent icebreaking ship designs, announced Wednesday that together with Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering of South Korea, the leading shipyard for constructing ice-capable LNG tankers, it has developed a more powerful second generation ice-breaking Arc7 LNG carrier.

The vessels will transport LNG for Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2 project.

DSME will build six new second generation Arc7 carriers, three each for Russian shipping operator Sovcomflot and Japan’s Mitsui O.S.K. Before construction begins Aker will confirm “improved operational capability” during ice model tests in its ice laboratory in Helsinki.

New hull shape and more power

In contrast to the first 15 Arc7 carriers in service since 2017, the new version will feature a new hull form and more power engines. These new features will reduce or potentially eliminate the need for icebreaker escort along Russia’s Northern Sea Route and may allow these LNG carriers to navigate along the route independently for much of the year.

Compared to the first generation Arc7 carriers the new type will have increased power output of 6 MW for a total of 51 MW — almost in line with the 60 MW of Russia’s latest generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers of the Arktika class.

“The new icebreaking LNG carriers are tailored to the transportation needs of Novatek’s new Arctic LNG 2 project, with special emphasis on year-round operation in the eastern sector of the Northern Sea Route,” explains Reko-Antti Suojanen, Managing Director at Aker Arctic Arctic Technology in a press release.

The eastern part of the Northern Sea Route, specifically the East Siberian Sea, is where ice conditions are most challenging during the winter months.

“This propulsion system is expected to provide new vessels with increased speed and manoeuvrability when sailing in ice conditions, compared with icebreaking LNG carriers of the previous generation,” also confirms Sovcomflot’s President and CEO Igor Tonkovidov.

The Arctic LNG 2 plant, currently under construction on Russia’s Gydan peninsula, will be Novatek’s second LNG project in the Arctic. Its first, Yamal LNG, opened in 2017. Both projects rely on a fleet of Arc7 LNG carriers to transport LNG to the markets in Europe and Asia.

New Arc7 for winter operations to Asia

Novatek’s logistics operation consists of icebreaking LNG carriers, future transshipment hubs at each terminus of the Northern Sea Route, and conventional LNG carriers to transport the LNG onwards to Asia and Europe.

Travel in an eastward direction to Asia is more challenging during the winter months when thicker ice blocks the shipping lanes.

Earlier this year, Novatek and its shipping partners conducted a test voyage at the end of May to test the first-generation Arc7 vessels’ capabilities during thick winter ice. The voyage came almost two months earlier than similar voyages during previous years.

And while the Arc7 carriers had nuclear icebreaker escorts for part of the voyage, the tankers proved so capable that independent navigation without icebreaker assistance appeared feasible according to experts.

Officially the goal of the new vessels is to increase transit speeds and improve the overall efficiency of the transportation system, according to Aker. However, unofficially, industry experts confirm to High North News that the additional power and the improved hull shape of the new Arc7 carriers, may enable year-round travel to markets in Asia, even without icebreaker escorts.

Less need for icebreakers?

This development also raises questions about the long-term need for the new nuclear icebreakers currently under construction in Russia and designed for a lifespan of 30-40 years.

In addition to five nuclear icebreakers of the Arktika class also known as the LK60 type, the most powerful icebreaker ever built, the country recently began construction of the first of three planned LK100 nuclear icebreakers — a super icebreaker nearly twice as powerful as the LK60.

Originally the planned role for the LK100s was to keep open the East Siberian Sea during winter and escort the LNG carriers along this section en route to Asia. According to shipping experts familiar with the second generation Arc7 carrier, there may no longer be a need for LK100 icebreakers if the new Arc7 carriers prove as capable as envisioned.

“With these new technologically advanced LNG carriers one would think that the days of icebreakers escorting ships in convoy would be over,” confirms Lawson Brigham, professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“The way to operate on the NSR is to use independently-operated icebreaking cargo carriers.”

The question of how much longer powerful nuclear icebreakers will be required in the Arctic is especially relevant in light of the fact that the Northern Sea Route has seen record-low ice extent in recent weeks and that waters along parts of the route remain unusually ice free for late October.

In fact, ice near the North Pole was so thin that ice conditions were too benign to test the ice capabilities of Russia’s newest nuclear icebreaker.

Ice increases fuel consumption

Some ice navigation experts, however, caution that even with the announced improvements, the vessels may not be capable enough to safely operate without icebreaker support during winter.

“Increasing the power of the Arc7 carrier from 45 MW to 51 MW with a more suitable hull shape is not sufficient to ensure safe transit during the winter period,” says Hervé Baudu, Senior Lecturer in Nautical Science and a Member of the French Maritime Society.

In addition, he cautions that technical capabilities are only one part of the equation. Economics and efficiencies when traveling through the ice also play a role. When the Arc7 carriers encounter the ice pack and hummocks — a ridge in the ice field — they will have to slow down to less than nine knots or turn around to travel stern first to ram through the ice.

This means transits will be longer.

“But above all, fuel consumption will be much higher. At full power, it is 180 tons per day, whereas in open water, it’ll be 40 to 60 tons, depending on the speed. This is considerable for one journey.”

In order to reduce these fuel costs vessels will continue to rely on nuclear icebreaker escorts. “Escort icebreakers have the advantage of opening a lead and breaking the ice, which allows higher speeds in forward motion.”