Thursday, November 04, 2010

Aker, the Arctic and Philadelphia?

This month's issue of Fast Company has an article, "The $15 trillion treasure at the end of the world," by Joshua Hammer, about natural resources in the Arctic, specifically possible natural gas deposits. Since (yes, it's true) the world is getting warmer, parts of the Arctic are accessible for more of the year. In the Yamal Peninsula reindeer migrations and drives are disrupted by gas drilling operations. While Gazprom is doing most of the drilling, Aker Arctic Technology of Helsinki is designing the ships to get them back and forth:

Aker is the only private company in the world with such an ice-model testing lab. The $16 million facility uses saline spray that forms a soft granular slush on the pool surface, before freezing to the required thickness during the night, to replicate conditions in Arctic and sub-Arctic seas, including the "multiyear ice" found around the polar ice cap. Aker has pioneered a design for "double-acting vessels": ships driven by an electric-powered azimuth propeller that can rotate 360 degrees, allowing them to smash through ice stern first, creating less friction and leaving less of a carbon footprint. "We found that the thrusters performed better when going backward in heavy ice ridges," Niini tells me. "It was a much more energy-efficent way of breaking ice -- we saw a 50% improvement [versus breaking it with the bow]."

This innovation has led to a new generation of cargo ships and oil tankers that can both break up ice and transport huge amounts of goods through polar regions. Today, Niini and his staff of 40 are working on several projects: a trio of "shuttle tankers" for Sovcomflot, which will transport crude oil from the new fields of the Pechora Sea to the Arctic port of Murmansk; an "Arctic ore carrier" that will take iron ore from Baffin Island, located in Nunavut territory in the Arctic Ocean of northern Canada; and the Aurora Borealis project, a scientific-research icebreaker commissioned by the European Union. The vessel will conduct scientific drilling, Niini says, "to see if there is anything in those untouched sediments -- oil or gas -- underneath the polar ice cap. Right now, we don't have a clue what's up there."

If that name is familiar it's because the shipyard in Philadelphia is the Aker Philadelphia shipyard, part of the Aker Group.

Further on in the Fast Company article we find this:
The U.S. has recently explored the Chukchi Plateau, an undersea ridge that extends 600 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, with the USS Healy -- the only vessel for scientific research in the federal government's 30-year-old fleet of three icebreakers (the others, the Polar Sea and the Polar Star, patrol and guard Arctic waters). But if the U.S. hopes to effectively explore the polar ice cap, a group of U.S. scientists and military officials admitted two years ago that the country's aging fleet needs to be totally revamped, at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. "We're at a crisis point," Admiral Thad W. Allen, then commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, told The New York Times. Yet there has been little enthusiasm in Congress for Arctic shipbuilding.

If there were a will and a way to invest in arctic ships for the US, to explore the Chukchi Plateau, the ships would probably be built here, and that would mean a lot of jobs.

Just sayin'

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