China’s first home-built icebreaker: carving a polar niche

China’s interest in the polar regions is growing, as are the objectives for advancing the domestic shipbuilding industry. The first icebreaker built entirely in China, the Xue Long 2 research vessel, will go a long way toward serving both these interests.

Xue Long 2 icebreaker. Photo courtesy of Polar Research Institute of China
Xue Long 2 icebreaker. Photo courtesy of Polar Research Institute of China

China already has one foreign-built polar scientific study vessel, on duty since 1993. After several years of successful polar operations, the decision was made to add another vessel to the fleet.

“The first vessel was not originally an icebreaker, but an Arctic supply and transportation ship that was later converted to a research vessel with ice-going capabilities,” explains Rong Huang, Chief Engineer and Designer of the Polar Research Institute of China. “The second ship was designed from the start with full icebreaking capabilities, and it will be able to perform a much broader scope of duties in the polar regions.” He adds that the new vessel will shift with the seasons between Arctic and Antarctic operations.

Polar-ready technology

Huang tells that the Xue Long 2 (Snow Dragon 2), due for delivery in 2019, will contain environmentally friendly technological features. “Xue Long 2 will be fully compliant with the Polar Code, and will be using low sulphur fuel and electric propulsion to make operations as clean and sustainable as possible. Consideration for the environment has influenced much of the design on the new vessel.”

Xue Long 2 was designed by the Finnish engineering company Aker Arctic and is under construction at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard. The 122-meter vessel will be outfitted with wet and dry laboratories, a large aft working deck served by several cranes, and a moon pool – an opening at the base of the hull for access to the water below. The ship has space for 90 scientists and crew, and enough capacity to undertake resupply missions to research stations. The inclusion of ABB’s two Azipod® propulsion units will enable the new vessel to continuously break through ice up to 1.5m thick plus snow up to 0.2 meter at the speed of 2-3 knots, moving ahead or astern.

“Two key goals for the Xue Long 2 were maximum flexibility and durability,” says Huang. “The proven Azipod® propulsion system ensures that the new vessel will be able to carry out her missions in varying Arctic and Antarctic ice conditions with the highest possible regularity.”

Moving forward together

Huang confirms China’s growing ambitions for research at both poles. “There is still much unknown in the Polar Regions,” he says. “Our previous vessel was not capable of getting the full picture. The new one will be better equipped to get a more complete overview, studying both the atmosphere and the ocean.” He also highlights the international aspects of the initiative: “We are planning joint research assignments with international partners. This is a national project that will provide data and results to institutes in China and internationally.”

The first Chinese-built icebreaking research vessel is both important for Chinese polar research, Huang says, and a natural progression in shipbuilding in China. “Economic conditions and the state of technology meant that we were not able to build the first vessel. Now we have more ability domestically, and more opportunities to combine domestic and foreign expertise. Lots of equipment comes from Europe, and we are grateful for cooperation with our European partners. As we continue to learn, we will still need good international partners. The Chinese government attaches great importance to shipbuilding, and if conditions permit, there could be more cooperation on development of icebreakers in China.”

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