Dec 222011
 

The intense agitating power of the Azipods can actually help break ice from underneath

The Arctic North end of Russia is believed to hold as much as a quarter of all the world’s oil deposits – an utterly monstrous economic prize, hidden in one of the toughest and least hospitable environments on the planet. Getting to this prize, and then transporting it back to refineries, is a monolithic task that requires one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of machinery man has ever built – the nuclear icebreaker. Purpose-built to the point of being almost unseaworthy on the open waves, these goliaths smash their way through 3-meter (10-foot) thick ice crusts to create viable pathways for other vessels – but fascinating new technologies could mean the days of the dedicated icebreaker are numbered.

Where there’s a well, there’s a way. An oil well, that is. Black gold. Texas tea. And some of the world’s richest reserves of the stuff are buried beneath the beds of the Berents sea, North of Russia and well into the Arctic Circle. It’s estimated that this area holds somewhere around a quarter of all the oil reserves in the world.

But it’s an area that gets no sun at all for at least one day every year, and which is so cold that the sea itself freezes over with 2-meter (6.5-foot) thick ice for more than two thirds of the year. When it’s not frozen over, there’s 12-meter (40 foot) waves to deal with. It’s one of the world’s most extreme environments; inhospitable doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Getting resources like oil and natural gas out of the earth – and safely back to shore – would be prohibitively expensive, if the prize wasn’t worthwhile. Where these sorts of quantities of fossil fuels are concerned, however, all bets are off and just about any expense can be justified.

… and the expense we’d like to take a look at today is the nuclear-powered icebreaker – a vessel whose sole task is to smash its way through packed sea ice and clear a path for other ships to follow in.

It’s a specialist job that boats have been designed to tackle since the 1830s – and it’s interesting to note that while today’s enormous icebreakers generally use nuclear power to generate the immense thrust needed to power through the ice fields, in other ways the design hasn’t changed too much for nearly 200 years.

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