Alternative to Suez: The Northern Sea Route

Finnish designers have developed a container ship for the Northern Sea Route

Suez Canal was blocked for one week by the giant container ship Ever Given. Alternative routes from Europe to Asia are increasingly being discussed. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is no exception.

On March 22, the day before the incident in the Suez Canal, the Finnish design bureau Aker Arctic , specializing in ice technology, presented a project of an Arctic container ship for the NSR. Detailed information is contained in the corporate publication of a Finnish company. 


The concept design of a container ship with a capacity of 8 thousand TEU for year-round operation on the NSR is based on previous developments by Aker Arctic for the region. A series of reinforced ice-class container ships of the Norilsk Nickel type and LNG carriers of the Arc7 class for the Yamal LNG project.

The container ship for the NSR will differ from other vessels of a similar type with an ice-reinforced hull. As well as icebreaker-type bow lines, and equipment for protecting cargo from the cold.

Two options

According to Luigi Portunato, shipbuilding engineer at Aker Arctic, the vessel can be built in two versions.

The first assumes the use of the “double acting ship” technology. It is due to the hull lines and the propulsion complex higher than the nose. In this case, the hybrid propulsion system consists of one shaft line with a central propeller and two rudder propellers along the sides.

The second , more traditional option, involves the use of two shafting with propellers and two rudders.

The container ship with rudder propellers will be able to operate on the NSR all year round. It would be moving stern ahead in difficult ice conditions. A container ship with propellers in difficult conditions will need the help of an icebreaker.

A special feature of the double-acting container ship will be an additional wheelhouse located in the aft part of the mooring deck. That will be used when moving aft forward. In addition, due to low operating temperatures, the bridge between the engine room and the wheelhouse with living quarters will be located below deck.

Container ship for work on the Northern Sea Route / Illustration: Aker Arctic


At the moment, the following technical characteristics of the container ship from Aker Arctic are known:

  • container capacity – 8000 TEU;
  • length – about 300 m;
  • width – 46 m;
  • draft – 13 m;
  • power (option 1) – 56 MW (propeller 1×22 MW, rudder propellers 2×17 MW);
  • power (option 2) – 44 MW (propellers 2×22 MW);
  • icebreaking capacity (option 1) – 2.3 m (at 3 knots, nose forward);
  • icebreaking capacity (option 2) – 1.9 m (at 3 knots, nose forward)

Project economics

When developing the project of the container ship, two options for the use of Arctic container ships on the Northern Sea Route were calculated. From Asian ports to European ports. As well as only in the section between the supposed container hubs in Murmansk and Kamchatka.

As a result, the designers came to the conclusion that the cost of transportation of a conventional container decreases with an increase in the vessel’s capacity for all options. At the same time, it is difficult to pinpoint the point when the options for transportation along the NSR become more profitable than the route through the Suez Canal. This is influenced by many factors, including the cost and type of fuel, the degree of loading of the vessel, etc.

According to Luigi Fortunatto, in the current market conditions, using an Arctic container ship is slightly more expensive than crossing the Suez Canal. The economic efficiency of Arctic container ships could be increased by switching to liquefied natural gas (LNG). At the same time, the shorter route from Asia to Europe along the NSR gives a gain in time. If earlier the speed and adherence to the schedule could only be guaranteed in summer, then with the new container ship we can already talk about the winter-spring period.

It is worth noting that the Aker Arctic publication does not mention the customer for the new vessel. It can be assumed that it is a subsidiary of Rosatom, Rusatom Cargo, which is implementing a project to create the Northern Sea Transit Corridor (SMTK). Earlier it became known about the company plans to start pilot operation of Arctic container ships of the Arc7 class as early as 2024.

Russia promotes Arctic sea route as alternative to blocked Suez Canal

The Arctic – Northern Sea Route could become an effective alternative to the Suez Canal. The canal has been completely shut down since Tuesday, state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom said in a series of half-joking tweets.

The proposal comes days after a 400-meter container ship got stuck in the crucial marine passage for global trade. The incident has sparked fears over rising shipping costs. It also evoked deep concerns about the interruption of supply chains linking Europe and Asia.

In a Twitter thread, Rosatom listed three reasons to view Russia’s strategic Arctic shipping route as a viable alternative. The first one stemmed from tracking data that showed the ship drew a giant phallus in the Red Sea before it got jammed. The state-run corporation cheekily pointed out that the Northern Sea Route offers much more space for drawing naughty pictures with the help of a giant cargo ship.

The company also said that its nuclear icebreaker fleet. The largest in the world, would be easily able to free any ice-bound vessel. The tweet was illustrated with an image showing Rosatom icebreakers rescuing a cargo ship trapped in the ice this winter.

Rosatom’s Arctic fleet, which includes five nuclear-powered icebreakers, a container ship, and four service vessels, is operated by Rosatomflot, based in the Russian port city of Murmansk. The icebreakers are used for navigation and rescue operations along the Northern Sea Route.

In the third tweet, Rosatom posted a waggish gif featuring the lead character from the 1997 American spy comedy ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery’, showing Powers stuck in a shuttle carriage that’s moving back and forth in a narrow tunnel, the image of a bulk carrier stuffed with containers photoshopped on top. 

The Russian authorities have recently turned the development of the Northern Sea Route into one of the key strategic priorities for the state.

In January, Minister of National Resources and Environment Dmitry Kobylkin said cargo shipping in Russia’s northernmost territorial waters would top 80 million tons as early as 2024.

Russia’s Arctic provides the shortest maritime route linking Europe and Asia. The ice waterway passes through several seas of the Arctic Ocean, including the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea, Chukchi Sea, and partially the Bering Sea in the Pacific Ocean.

Rosatom said in a separate tweet that a “Trip from Murmansk to Japan on the Northern Sea Route is 5770 miles & 12 840 miles through the Suez Canal,” adding that the Egyptian route may be blocked for days.

Silk Road News – Eurasia News Online – 01

China pledges to build ‘Polar Silk Road’ by developing Arctic shipping routes

Beijing has announced this week its intention to construct a “Polar Silk Road”. It will actively participate in the development of Arctic and Antarctic regions as part of its new 2021-2025 “five-year plan.”

According to the plan published on Friday, China would “participate in pragmatic cooperation in the North Pole”. And “raise its ability to participate in the protection and utilization of the South Pole.”

The plans to extend the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping routes were announced back in 2018. China said at the time that it wanted to create new freight routes linking Asia and Europe. It raised concerns about the fragile environment of the region. It also said it would encourage enterprises to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages. That will be paving the way for Arctic shipping routes that would form a “Polar Silk Road.”

Land territories in the Arctic cover an area of around 8 million square km. Sovereignty belonging to Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Canada and the United States. The Arctic Ocean is more than 12 million square km. The countries that border it, along with other nations, share maritime rights and interests according to international law.

A major stake in the Russian Yamal LNG project

Despite being a non-Arctic state, China is increasingly active in the polar region. It became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013. The country has a major stake in the Russian Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) project. It is expected to supply China with four million tons of LNG per year.

China also announced plans to launch a new satellite to track shipping routes and monitor changes in sea ice in the Arctic. It plans to launch the satellite in 2022.

Focused on trade-boosting infrastructure projects along the path of the ancient Silk Road, the Belt and Road Initiative aims to connect China to Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

China building digital Silk Road stretching from Asia through Africa to Europe

The final stretch of a cross-border fiber optic cable is set to be laid by China in Pakistan to create the Digital Silk Road (DSR), Nikkei Asia reports. The DSR is part of the broader Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The fiber cable will link to the Pakistan East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) submarine cable in the Arabian Sea, to service countries participating in BRI, and Europe. It is currently being laid between Pakistan’s Rawalpindi city and the port cities of Karachi and Gwadar. The $240-million project, which is in partnership with China’s Huawei Technologies, was approved by the government last week.

The laying of sea cable in Pakistan’s territorial waters will begin in March, following government approval this month for Cybernet, a local internet service provider, to construct an Arabian Sea landing station in Karachi.

The Mediterranean section of the cable is already being laid, and runs from Egypt to France. The 15,000 kilometer-long cable is expected to go into service later this year.

The PEACE cable will provide the shortest direct internet route between participating countries, and will drastically reduce internet data transfer speeds. It is expected to help reduce Pakistan’s exposure to internet outages from damaged submarine cables by providing an additional route for internet connectivity.

According to Eyck Freymann, author of ‘One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World,’ the BRI is evolving to place less emphasis on traditional heavy infrastructure, and more on high-tech cooperation and digital services.

He told Nikkei Asia that “Beijing wants to dominate the physical infrastructure underlying global communications, particularly the internet,” adding: “This will give it an advantage in internationalizing its tech sector and pursuing future tech-related deals with partner countries.”

The ambitious multi-trillion-dollar BRI initiative (or the new Silk Road), announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to boost connectivity and cooperation between East Asia, Europe, and East Africa. It is expected to significantly boost global trade, cutting trading costs in half for the countries involved, according to expert estimates.

Why the Il-114 is more important for Russia even than the MS-21?

I will try to explain why is the Il-114 more important for Russia than even the MS-21.

Undoubtedly, December will go down in history as the most “aviation” month of 2020 in Russia. The flight with engines of domestic production was made at once by two airliners. The MS-21, as well as the Il-114. The importance of both liners for our country can hardly be overestimated. However, if our medium-haul lines are fully and for years to come provided with the products of Boeing and Airbus, which are massively purchased by domestic airlines, there is almost nothing to carry out regional transportation. In this context, the new IL is a much more needed aircraft for Russia.

After the collapse of the USSR and the beginning of the degradation of the national aviation industry. The aging Tu-134, An-24 and Yak-40 remained to work on domestic airlines. Competitors from Bombardier and SAAB produced their own regional airliners. Russian ones were given barriers to access the world market in the form of limits on environmental friendliness and low noise of aircraft engines. It was not particularly interesting for those in power to develop their modern power plants. We had a paradigm “we will buy everything we need abroad for petrodollars”.

Ageing Fleet

The result was logical: the existing aircraft fleet grew old, and experienced pilots moved to work abroad for higher salaries. An-24 turboprop, very decent for its time, began to suffer disaster after disaster. In 1997, an An-24RV crashed in Karachay-Cherkessia, killing all 50 people flying on it. At 2010, in Russia, during the crash of a liner of this type, performing flight 9357 on the Krasnoyarsk – Igarka route, 11 people out of 14 on board were killed. In 2011, flight 9007 from Tomsk to Surgut was forced to make an emergency landing on the Ob River due to an engine fire, as a result of which seven passengers died from their injuries. In 2013, in Donetsk, an An-24 crashed with fans of the Shakhtar football club, five of them were killed, seven more were injured.

There is no doubt about the need to renew the fleet of short-haul lines. In theory, Superjet was supposed to cope with this task, but instead of the most popular segment of 65-75 passenger seats, it was pushed into 100. Everyone has already heard about its problems with imported components, which the domestic industry has now undertaken to replace. But, alas, it seems that they did not have time. On the eve, new US sanctions came into force, which should prohibit the use of US-made components on the Superjet and MS-21. In a short-haul liner, these are the chassis, hydraulic system, electrical and oxygen supply equipment. It is clear that sooner or later it will be possible to replace all this, but here and now a serious failure is forming in the production chain.

Just in time arrival

In this context, the Il-114-300 arrived just in time. The plane can carry up to 64 passengers. It can functionally replace the Superjet on domestic routes, although these are liners of different classes. “Ilyushin” is more severe and unpretentious than “imported constructor”. The most important thing is that it is completely Russian. Although this project was developed three decades ago, it has received a new life in modern Russia. Its main advantage is its own TV7-117ST-01 aircraft engine. The power plant can produce up to 3100 horsepower. It is economical and meets modern requirements for low noise and environmental friendliness. Work on it began in 2014, when it became clear that things went wrong with the West. And it’s good that they didn’t waste time.

Now Russia has its own short-haul liner capable of delivering 64 passengers over a distance of 1,500 kilometers in three hours. It will be especially in demand in the difficult conditions of the Far North and the Far East. IL-114-300 with good reason claims to become a reliable “workhorse” of local airlines, increasing the transport connectivity of the vast country. In addition, the RF Ministry of Defense will be able to order its military modifications intended for patrolling sea borders, reconnaissance and electronic warfare.

‘Breaking ice to move gas’ – Polar Silk Road

As Russian tanker-icebreaker duo complete milestone Arctic voyage, climate activists side with ice

Following a nuclear-powered icebreaker, a Russian tanker has sailed through the frigid Northern Sea Route for the first time ever in February. “Won’t somebody think of the poor ice?”, climate-conscious commenters shouted.

The Christophe de Margerie, a liquefied natural gas tanker operated by Russian shipping firm Sovcomflot, made history this week when it docked at the remote Arctic terminal of Sabetta, after sailing through the normally ice-locked Northern Sea Route (NSR) from Jiangsu in China. Traveling solo through the Bering Strait, it then followed a nuclear icebreaker, the 50 Let Pobedy, along Russia’s northern coast until it reached Sabetta on Friday.

The journey marked the first time a tanker has sailed the route in February, “and confirms that year-round safe navigation is possible along the entire length of the Northern Sea Route,” Sovcomflot CEO Igor Tonkovidov said during a meeting with Russian officials last week. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev predicted that year-round shipping along the route could more than double by 2024.

The route, which cuts the East Asia to Europe shipping time by nearly half, was previously off-limits for the first few months of the year due to thick ice, but the changing climate has dislodged some of this ice and made the NSR a viable and competitive shipping route.

However, some observers took issue with the idea of a Russian ship “literally breaking apart ice to move gas.” Even though ice-breaking ships have been used in polar regions since as early as the 11th century, the climate crowd still sounded the alarm.

Their icebreaker-induced meltdown aside, the reason the route is traversable is actually due to higher temperatures. Previously, some ice along the passage would go years without thawing, effectively sealing the route off entirely. On its most recent voyage, the Christophe de Margerie  encountered no multi-year ice at all – a sign that the region is indeed warming up.
Amid rising temperatures, some activists have called for an end to fossil fuel use altogether. Climate campaigner and self-proclaimed “eco-socialist” Carola Rackete declared that “gas tankers should not even exist in the first place,” while another commenter demanded that Microsoft CEO Bill Gates intervene to save the planet (possibly by blocking out the sun, Mr. Burns style).

Concerns about the planet notwithstanding, geopolitical tensions look set to heat up long before the ice disappears. As the Christophe de Margerie left Jiangsu in late January, more than 1,000 US Marines landed in Scandinavia for Arctic warfare training. Several weeks earlier, then-US Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite said the American sailors would increasingly be making their presence known. “You will see the navy operating again in a more permanent manner above the Arctic Circle,” he said, adding that the US will “operate more assertively” to challenge Russia’s claims in the region. 

Beijing wants 100,000 hydrogen cars by 2025

Lured by government incentives and research, manufacturers are rushing to set up production plants

China expects to have 100,000 cars powered by clean-burning hydrogen cells on its roads within five to six years as it challenges such countries as Japan and South Korea for dominance of the emerging carbon-free automotive markets.

There are already more electric vehicles in China than anywhere else, but an expert in new energy sources with the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Xinhua that the research and production focus was now shifting to hydrogen fuel cells. With their outstanding energy-conversion efficiency and zero carbon emissions, the cells are tipped to replace fossil-fuel engines and rechargeable batteries as the global power source for transport.

The blueprint for the program will be China’s successful marketing of electric cars: There were almost none 10 years ago, but a million electric and hybrid cars were sold to the public and private sectors last year, more than the rest of the world combined.

They use lithium-ion packs, which need to be recharged every 350-600 kilometers. In contrast, fuel cells generate their own electricity when hydrogen interacts with oxygen and do not need charging. Instead, they have hydrogen tanks that can hold far more energy, while the only byproducts are heat and water.

Beijing aims to add 30,000 “clean” vehicles in 30 cities each year from 2019, mostly powered by hydrogen, with the initial emphasis likely to be on public transportation. The government has invested more than US$12 billion in fuel cell technologies.

Lured by government research and production subsidies, domestic automakers such as Great Wall Motor, Yutong Bus and Foton Motor have rushed into the promising hydrogen automotive sector since last year. Changchun-based First Automobile Work, China’s oldest carmaker, has announced plans to mass-produce a fuel-cell version of its flagship marque Hongqi this year.

A 12 billion yuan (US$1.77 billion) hydrogen automobile plant is also being built in Guangdong province, backed by Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing. Production will start by the end of this year, with an annual output of 160,000 units expected within five years.

Chinese policymakers may also offer incentives to accelerate the construction of fueling stations for hydrogen cars, according to China Security Times. There are currently only 12 functioning stations.

Some earlier versions of hydrogen-powered cars are already on the road, such as the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity, but the fuel they carry is expensive, volatile and prone to explode. To overcome these problems, the University of Science and Technology of China said this year that it had invented a new catalyst capable of preventing highly flammable hydrogen fuel cells from overheating.

A research team with the university’s School of Chemistry and Materials Science said the catalyst would prevent cells from being affected by carbon monoxide and allow for the manufacturing of high-purity hydrogen at a time when the costs of making fuel cells and building and running hydrogen pipelines and fueling stations are still prohibitive. The battery would be able to work with temperature changes.

Older vehicles may be converted to hydrogen as technologies become available. In one notable breakthrough, Chinese researchers have adapted methanol, an alcohol made easily from coal, to hydrogen gas so it can power cars. The methanol releases hydrogen and carbon dioxide when it comes into contact with water, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Coal Chemistry has developed a way to get a faster reaction under normal temperatures by using a device that can fit into a compact car.

The reaction chamber has a volume of only about 100 milliliters, and the vehicle can carry two fuel tanks – one for methanol and a smaller one for water – according to Xinhua and the South China Morning Post.

RUMBLE Program: Russia, EU Team Up to Create Supersonic Aviation of the Future

Political tensions haven’t been able to stop Russian-European cooperation in advanced aeronautics via the RUMBLE program. What’s at stake is the creation of new guidelines for the return of supersonic civil aviation in Europe through the elimination of a key obstacle: excessive noise levels caused by aircraft as they break the sound barrier.

The joint Russian-EU RUMBLE (Regulation and Norm for Low Supersonic Boom Levels) project was launched in Paris last week, effectively tasked with determining the future of supersonic commercial aviation in Europe. The project’s strategic goals include finding a solution to the issue of the supersonic boom generated by aircraft, and to create standards for global commercial supersonic aviation.

Financing for RUMBLE is split down the middle between the Russian Ministry of Industry & Trade and the European Commission.

Sputnik France got in touchwith Sergei Chernyshev, director-general of the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI), a key player from the Russian side in the RUMBLE project, to get a better sense of what European companies and governments hope to accomplish.

Offering a bit of background on the issue, Chernyshev explained that one of the key reasons behind the commercial failure of Europe’s Concorde and the Soviet Union’s Tu-144 supersonic airliner was the sonic boom generated by the planes as they hit supersonic speed. The noise issue has led many countries, including the United States, to completely ban the flight of commercial supersonic aircraft over residential areas, effectively depriving airlines of most of their most promising routes.

“The noise caused by a supersonic aircraft as it flies past is virtually indistinguishable from that of an explosion. While it lasts only one or two tenths of a second, this is a very unpleasant phenomenon,” the senior engineer said.

However, the development of new technologies in the area of supersonic aviation may radically alter the situation in the near future, Chernyshev added.

“Aeronautics technologies have advanced and humanity – the US, Europe, Russia, Japan and China, have begun contemplating whether it’s possible to create a plane that’s able to fly at supersonic speeds over residential areas without producing such a loud noise. It’s clear that the plane will still produce some noise – that is just physics. However, what’s necessary is to make this noise so small so as to make it acceptable to people, similarly to how we are all accustomed to the noise of a big city.”

Commenting on the ambitious ideas behind RUMBLE and its efforts to create new standards on noise pollution, TsAGI’s director emphasized that what is at stake is effectively the creation a new generation of aircraft, one which will change human perceptions when it comes to long-distance travel.

The RUMBLE project required almost six years of careful negotiations to get off the ground, the decision on cooperation made in part based on Europe’s desire to catch up with US developments in the field of supersonic aviation. In the US, research in the area is driven mostly by NASA, with private companies including Gulfstream Aerospace (a direct competitor to France’s Dassault Aviation) engaged in their own efforts. The fact that a Dassault Aviation representative is serving as RUMBLE’s technical director is an indication of the company’s engagement in the project.

According to Chernyshev, Russian and French companies played a key role in establishing the cooperative effort. “Before drafting the specifications for this project, we took a very careful look at what had been done in the US, and attempted to find a niche – something that would allow us to add knowledge to this common international issue,” the engineer said.

In other words, Chernyshev noted, RUMBLE’s work will complement that of NASA and that of other US agencies and companies. “The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also funded research in this area, and has accumulated a lot of data which can help form the basis of new standards. RUMBLE will do its part in terms of the methodology used to evaluate noise levels caused by supersonic booms…[including differing perceptions] among people depending on whether it’s day or night.”

From Joint Standards to Joint Development?

The senior engineer did not rule out that in the future, this project, currently tasked with dealing with academic and administrative issues, cannot grow into practical cooperation – i.e. into the joint Russian-European development of a new supersonic commercial jet.

According to Sputnik France, it’s probably no accident that European aviation giant Airbus, rather than governments, is coordinating the project. From the Russian side, the participation of Mikhail Pogosyan, rector of the Moscow Aviation Institute and principal creator of the Sukhoi SuperJet 100, is seen as evidence of RUMBLE’s commercial potential.

“It is difficult for us to compete with the Americans in terms of financing. Therefore, in our opinion, it would only be logical for Europe [including Russia] to launch a joint project, thus sharing the funding and the risks involved,” Chernyshev said. “Will our research lead to a new project? We certainly hope so.”

Effectively, Chernyshev noted, what’s at stake is the creation of the supersonic aircraft of the future, one which can fill the niche of high-speed business travel in the 21st century. “I cannot rule out joint efforts for a more detailed design at the concept level, and potential prototypes for such an aircraft,” he said.

TsAGI’s director has some pretty clear ideas on how this potential future aircraft may look. First of all, he said, the design will likely include a single person crew, supported by an advanced flight control system. In terms of design characteristics, the plane will be a “fundamentally new design,” dissimilar to conventional commercial aircraft, something that will demand highly innovative development work by the Russian aviation industry. The planes will be built from composite materials, making them lighter, and of course, will feature a new engine.

“As far as the engine is concerned, one option is to refine an existing one (although for the moment none of them are entirely suitable). The other is a breakthrough in engine construction and the creation of engines with a variable cycle – i.e. engines which can change their cycle during flight, depending on speed,” Chernyshev explained.

The new planes will probably be small, with seating for between 8 and 20 people, he said. “We believe that a small aircraft of about 60 tons with a capacity for between 12-14 people would be a good start as a business jet, costing 1.5 times that of a conventional subsonic business jet.”

In any case, Chernyshev emphasized Russia-European cooperation on commercial supersonic aviation does not seem affected by any political disputes between Moscow, Brussels, or Europe’s national governments. In fact, cooperation has only increased in spite of tensions and sanctions. “Such projects are the bridge which will help maintain working relations in a difficult political period and restore them once sanctions are lifted,” the official concluded.