Safe, year-round shipping in the highly fragile Arctic environment is a major challenge – exceptionally reliable and durable solutions are needed for operating in freezing and fragile climates. VTT Research Scientists Jaakko Heinonen and Vilho Jussila believe that Finns have plenty of Arctic expertise on which to build.
– Shipping has traditionally been our main global strength, but new Finnish spearhead sectors are emerging – offshore wind power is a good example of this, Heinonen says.
Things are happening in the north, now that there is so much global interest in the Arctic and icy regions. Natural resources in the Arctic, such as oil, gas and minerals, are raising interest because climate change is making them more accessible. At the same time, the opening of new sea routes such as the Northeast and Northwest passages, will provide huge opportunities for Finnish shipbuilding.
Utilising maritime resources
At VTT, we discuss Arctic and cold regions in a broader context, in which the sea is viewed as a resource. The sea can provide a "multi-platform" for a range of activities and be a source of food, energy and even entertainment.
– The concept of marine resource covers activities such as renewable energy production, transport, trade, tourism and fishing, explains Heinonen.
Shipping is clearly under rapid and sustainable development. Liquefied natural gas-fuelled LNG ships are among the new directions being taken. Research Scientist Vilho Jussila wonders whether other kinds of ships should be banned from entering the fragile Arctic regions.
– This would eliminate particulate emissions. In addition, the effect on the surrounding sea area would be much milder if a vessel were damaged.
Nature's own testbed environment
Heinonen and Jussila believe that no international brand could withstand a reputation as a spoiler of Arctic nature. That is why, as environmental awareness grows, Finland has an excellent opportunity to function as a testbed environment, in which various parties can test their products and services.
– Finnish conditions would enable full-scale tests. We have a pilot environment that is almost Arctic in nature, says Heinonen.
Testing of this kind would be supported by Finnish modelling and simulation expertise. Heinonen points out that, while simulations cannot wholly substitute for testing in challenging, authentic conditions, they can eliminate several unnecessary intermediate steps.
– There would be less need for 'trial and error'.
Testing expertise in a single location
VTT aims to build a world-class environment for validating the compatibility of Arctic solutions, which would bring together the related Finnish expertise. At least measurement, the verification of offshore structures, computation software and automated port operations could be developed within the same environment.
– For example, solutions are needed for the logistics and maintenance challenges posed by ice and snow. Safety is being improved, as well as efficiency, says Vilho Jussila.
The construction of an Arctic testing centre would be a natural continuation of VTT's Strategy for the Arctic Region, which has built up momentum in recent years. Heinonen, who joined VTT in 2001, believes that the Arctic theme soared to the top of VTT's agenda in 2013 and was selected as a spearhead programme in early 2015.
– This represents a long continuum, given that we experienced our first Arctic boom at the end of 1980s.
A lasting impression
The interaction between different ice structures is a key area of the researchers' work. Heinonen believes that one of the toughest nuts to crack is the problem of ice loads on ships and marine structures.
– This is still not fully understood, but we are continually finding out more about how well, say, propellers and marine structures withstand ice loads, he says.
They are also investigating how to make the engines of ships that are ploughing through ice function within their optimal limits – and how to secure energy generation by offshore wind parks. Research Scientists at VTT are tackling these themes despite limited direct funding from industry.
– This work is nevertheless important because the ice load is a key criterion when designing structures and equipment, adds Heinonen.
When we understand the properties and behaviour of ice, we can use automation more extensively in the Arctic region in areas such as remote monitoring and management.
The big freeze is a hot topic
So, how much do we need Arctic and cold climate solutions on a planet that is steadily warming? Heinonen and Jussila remind us that winter has not deserted the northern hemisphere – for example, almost the entire Baltic Sea was ice-bound just five years ago.
– The Baltic Sea and Gulf of Bothnia are key regions for us, but there are also opportunities in China and North America, for example, Heinonen says, adding that Finns have unique know-how which is in demand all over the world.
– National cleantech operations are strongly linked to the EU's Blue Growth programme. Finland must be at the forefront of sustainability, which is a core value of the programme, comments Heinonen.
– That is where we will find the business models that take us far into the future, he speculates.