Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Arc7 gas carriers: history and development of the Russian LNG fleet

Floating Arctic plant

4 july 2023

Arctic gas carriers today are a dynamically growing fleet that meets the ever-increasing needs of the Polar Region's extractive industry. These are very complex, expensive and modern vessels, which are one of the key conditions for the payback of the North Sea Route at the initial stage. Over the past five years, the production of Arctic gas carriers has come a long and difficult way, which demonstrates the importance of the Arctic LNG industry and the development of the North Sea Route in the world.

The Arctic gas carrier's import substitution

The first vessel to go to work in the Polar Region was the tanker Christophe de Margerie, which took on cargo in the port of Sabetta on 8 December 2017. It was she who laid the foundation for the era of Arc7 Arctic gas carrier construction by becoming a pioneer ship. Today, the ice LNG fleet includes Boris Vilkitsky, Fyodor Litke and Eduard Toll launched in 2017; Vladimir Rusanov, Rudolf Samoilovich, Vladimir Vise, Georgiy Brusilov, Boris Davydov, Nikolay Zubov joined the service in 2018; Nikolay Evgenyev, Vladimir Voronin, Georgiy Ushakov, Yakov Gakkel and Nikolay Urvantsev were welcomed in 2019. The vessels were built at the Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) shipyard in South Korea.

These ships are 300 m long and 50 m wide, travel at a speed of 19.5 knots and can withstand temperatures as low as –52°C. Arc7 ice class means that the ship can move without the assistance of an icebreaker in ice up to 2.1 m thick (stern forward and not fast). Its high ice passability is ensured by the introduction of icebreaking technologies in hull construction, as well as three powerful propulsion units of 15 MW each. Modern Project 2220 icebreakers have a shaft power of 60 MW, while the first nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin was only 32 MW. The gas is cooled in storage facilities to a temperature of –163°C.

In 2020, the South Korean shipyard cancelled contracts to build new ice-class Arctic gas carriers. It was planned to integrate solutions from icebreakers—for example, azimuthal thrust on the propeller column, which would make it possible to make 360° turns. However, not all shipbuilders were deterred by the sanctions at that time. Samsung Heavy Industries successfully handed over one of the three ice-class gas carriers to the customer in March 2022, and the Saam FSU floating liquefied natural gas storage vessel successfully reached Murmansk on 27 June 2023. There will be two of them in total, the second one under the name Koryak FSU will enter the voyage off the Kamchatka coast in July. They were, by the way, built by Daewoo Shipbuilding Marine Engineering, having been ordered in... 2020. Hence, it can be easily concluded that international restrictions concern the development of the Arctic fleet only nominally—the prospects for the development of the Polar Region are too attractive, and whoever misses this chance risks a great deal.

Russian companies have also drawn a conclusion from the troublesome incident. In the same crucial year of 2020, Novatek signed a contract with SC Zvezda to build 10 Arc7-class gas carriers for the Arctic LNG-2 project. The shipbuilding complex received international accreditation and contracted the French company Gaztransport & Technigaz, which brought competencies in the construction of cryogenic membrane systems. According to the head of Novatek, the first 'two or three' ships will go to the field in 2023, and in 2024, five more ships will join the fleet. In terms of their technological features, they are comparable to DSME vessels.

Zvezda has taken an important step in localising production—the construction of propeller steering pads has been moved to the plant. Together with the training of personnel and introduction of the latest technological solutions, Russia has created a base for the construction of ice-class gas carriers. Apparently, this is why the head of the Government Mikhail Mishustin instructed SC Zvezda, Sovcomflot and Novatek to create a roadmap to create an industry for fully domestic production of these vessels in Russia. The due date is 1 August 2023.

Multiplier effect

The growth of the domestic LNG industry has a great multiplier effect. As of 2022, more than Russian 800 companies were involved in the industry, and when dynamic growth is taken into account, the number is increasing every month. This means hundreds of thousands of jobs, promising technology, education and, in general, economic growth for the entire country. In terms of LNG ship production, this is also relevant—the global fleet has grown 3.5 times in the last 20 years, with 100 of them launched between 2019 and 2022. Last year, there were 641 ships and 47 FSUs (floating storage units). The Neft Capital portal points out in its analytical article that the main owners of the LNG fleet are gas-consuming countries. This means a weighty share of influence in the market, and Russian Federation and its LNG capacity looks like an anomaly. However, there is a rational explanation for this—in general, the development of the Polar Region and its industrial exploitation is an anomaly by world standards, suffice it to say that Russia possesses the world's only nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet. Domestic competencies provide us with a special place in the international competition for sales.

And the competition will be tough—according to Leonid Mikhelson, head of Novatek, Russia will need to raise its LNG production from 30 to 150 mn tons per year to maintain its position on the global market. This should counteract a significant reduction in natural gas supplies to Europe via pipelines. According to experts, supplies through the pipeline to China have also not yet reached their design capacity. In this context, the development of Arctic LNG with its potential is one of the cornerstones for maintaining its position in the world, as well as for further growth. Incidentally, the development of the North Sea Route is also linked to the LNG industry, which will soon reach a constant year-round cargo turnover along the entire length of the route.

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