Sophie Davies reports on DSME’s latest Arc7 ice-class LNG carrier, designed to navigate the icebound waters of the Russian Arctic and an innovation central to the success of the country’s Yamal LNG plant
The world’s first icebreaking LNG carrier, known as Christophe de Margerie, is reportedly nearing completion at the Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) yard in South Korea, and is set to herald a new era in LNG shipping.
The 172,000 cubic metre vessel, the first of 15 such tankers currently being built at the yard, is on order by Russian maritime shipping company Sovcomflot. It will be used to ship gas from the giant US$26.9 billion Yamal LNG project, located in the northeastern section of the Siberian Yamal Peninsula.
Yamal LNG is being developed by Russia’s largest gas producer Novatek, which has a 60% stake in the project. France’s Total and China’s CNPC each also hold 20% stakes in the project. The project includes the construction of a plant capable of producing 16.5 million tonnes of LNG per year. It will consist of three trains, each with between 5 and 5.5 million tonnes of annual capacity, and each with its own LNG storage facilities.
The first Yamal train is expected to launch commercially in 2017.
A class of their own
Yamal’s Sabetta terminal is located in the far north of the Russian Arctic, meaning that the new carriers will need to be able to proceed through thick ice all year round. The waters around Sabetta are ice-covered for approximately 300 days a year and temperatures of -40°C are not unusual during the winter months.
The new carriers being developed by DSME, each costing some US$300 million, will be able to operate in temperatures as low as -50°C, owing to new anti-freezing technology.
DSME, which was not available for comment when contacted by NewsBase, began experimenting with anti-freezing technology in 2008 using a 10-tonne oil tanker, according to local reports.
It is the particularly challenging Arctic conditions that Yamal presents that make the new breed of icebreaking LNG carriers necessary. There are already 11 ice-class LNG carriers in service; however, none are capable of moving through the thickness of ice necessary to service Yamal.
The existing vessels – all of which are ice-class 1A or Arc4 – can only handle ice thicknesses up to 0.8 metres. However, with an enforced steel hull 25% thicker than equally-sized non ice-class vessels, forward and aft ice belts and three sets of Azipod propellers offering a total output of 45 MW, the new vessels in the DSME build-out are designed to pass continually through ice up to 2.1 metres thick. This should also ensure they do not need separate icebreaker escorts.
In addition, they all use double-acting ship (DAS) technology, which allows ice-class vessels to proceed in both open seas where ice is thin, and in full icebreaking mode. DAS was developed by Aker Arctic in 2002 for two oil tankers – Tempera and Mastera – used to transport oil from Russia’s Primorsk terminal in the Baltic Sea. The design means that when in full icebreaker mode, the ship will travel stern-first.
The new vessels will also use six Wärtsilä dual-fuel engines, which are capable of handling the extremities in engine load variations that can occur when a ship passes through thick ice.
The ships will open up “a new trade in the Far East and European markets, with the ships capable of transiting the Northeast Passage across the north of Russia,” Krispen Atkinson, principal maritime analyst at IHS Markit, told NewsBase. They are being constructed to the highest ice class capable, known as Arc7, he added.
Indeed, these carriers may well be the key to the success of the entire scheme. They are “really important” for the Yamal project, independent LNG consultant Andy Flower explained to NewsBase. However, they will only be used here in the Russian Arctic, as no other LNG project requires technology for such extreme conditions, he noted.
Arc7-class tankers are also being used by state-run Gazprom Neft to provide year-round oil transportation from the Novoportovskoye oil and gas condensate field on the Yamal Peninsula. The Russian producer announced in March it had launched the first of seven such vessels, which will each be able to carry up to 270,000 barrels of crude, more than twice the capacity of the Arc5 icebreakers currently employed by the company. Gazprom Neft concluded that this was the only viable means of exploiting Novoportovskoye’s resources, given that the field is located some 700 km from the nearest liquids pipeline.
Regarding Yamal LNG, Flower cautioned that the economics of the vessels themselves would raise some doubts, as the shipping cost to Europe will be very high. Coupled with any delays in the construction schedule – the last of the 15 icebreaking vessels is currently scheduled for completion by early 2020, but the first has already been delayed by months – and the whole project outlook becomes even more questionable.
However, the LNG carriers are the “only way that Novatek can get the gas out” of Yamal, Flower added.
The only alternative would be to sell the gas in Russia via Gazprom’s network of pipelines. But Gazprom would either charge a transit tariff or deny access to its grid altogether on the basis that the Yamal scheme posed a threat to its market share. Even if Novatek were able to transport the gas via pipeline easily, demand in Russia for gas is fairly weak at the moment, given the country’s ongoing economic downturn. With sea and gas trials ongoing during July, Christophe de Margerie is expected to depart South Korea in October to embark on its first tests in icebound conditions, before final delivery to Sovcomflot in January 2017.