"Hydrogen Snowflake" will open the "green Arctic". TEKFACE Interview

Current work and results, risks and decisions, plans and schedules, logistics and sustainability of the AHEAD -  IAS Snowflake project in the TEKFACE interview with Yury Vasiliev, Executive Director of the Institute of Arctic Technologies, MIPT.

English translation of the interview "Водородная «Снежинка» откроет «зеленую» Арктику" / Hydrogen Snowflake will open the green Arctic:

During the Russian Chairmanship in the Arctic Council in 2021-2023, Russia initiates new international projects in the field of green technology, ecology, communications. As an example, the IAS Snowflake – AHEAD project, which was initiated to the Arctic Council by Russia in 2019 and was endorsed by all Arctic countries on June 8th, 2020, at the Arctic Council's Sustainable Development Working Group meeting. The Snowflake is an analogue of the International Space Station but in the Arctic: international research and educational programs, development and testing new breakthrough technologies for implementation in the Arctic regions. The State Commission for the Development of the Arctic had decided to build two unique Arctic stations in Russia: in Yamal and Murmansk region. The Snowflake Stations will be fully autonomous and will be supplied with green energy, which they will generate themselves. TEKFACE spoke with one of the initiators of the project, Executive Director of the Institute of Arctic Technologies, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Yury Vasiliev.

TEKFACE: Who is currently working on the Snowflake project?

Yury Vasiliev: The project was initiated, and it is being implemented on a turnkey basis by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT). The technical part is being designed by MIPT's subsidiary - the Engineering Center “Autonomous Energy”, which is also the general designer of the project.  Also, we already have more than ten subdesigners in specialized areas: land use and master plan, space-planning, architectural and constructive solutions, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, electrical lighting and power equipment, water supply and sewerage networks, fire prevention and safety measures, environmental protection, as well as engineering geodetic, geological, hydrometeorological, environmental, historical and archaeological surveys. Until we manage the project documentation and pass state-specific examinations, the state customer will not be able to initiate any competitive procedures for selecting a contractor. This is a common practice.

TEKFACE: What Russian companies are currently participating in the project?

Yury Vasiliev:  There is no point in listing design bureaus; I just want to emphasize that they are not technology developers, but designers of some project sections, that have been selected through competitive procedures. I would like to mention that we do not attract brands: the experience matters for us, but not the name.  

TEKFACE: Are foreign companies involved in the design?

Yury Vasiliev:  No, there are no foreign companies on this stage.

TEKFACE: Please tell us about your academic partners, with whom are you currently cooperating?

Yury Vasiliev: We are working on many areas at the same time, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Now we are at the stage of construction and engineering design; but everything takes time. Today I can tell you about our close cooperation with the Institute of Problems of Chemical Physics and the Institute of Solid State Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as with the electrochemical company InEnergy Group; btw. InEnergy Group is a cofounder of our Engineering Center and a MIPT’s partner.

TEKFACE: Speaking specifically about the energy sector, are there any partners here?

Yury Vasiliev: Everything related to hydrogen power, wind farms, emergency diesel generator set, as well as lithium-ion batteries, power electronics, and an integration of all non-standard engineering – these are what MIPT does on the basis of its engineering center. The key point is that we do the entire minimum energy programme ourselves. Our team has practical experience of successfully implemented projects, also in the Arctic region, for instance, a pilot project of a hybrid power plant in Yamal. We have our own test bench, laboratories, and sufficient competence in section design. Together with the Yamal government we decided that we are able to manage it. Also, I would like to point out that the creation of the unique Snowflake Station is a great challenge for the Yamal region; but we believe that the governor's team is ready to accept it, because the Yamal government promptly resolves all actual and challenging issues.
I want to also emphasize that we are now talking about the design stage, not the construction of the Snowflake Station. When the construction begins, the MIPT’s Engineering Center, as an engineering contractor, will be responsible for non-traditional technological solutions, with the help of partners and subcontractors. Many companies will be involved in the Snowflake’s implementation, but which ones will be clear after the design and tenders are completed.

TEKFACE: About the finalizing of the design and the beginning of construction, at what stage are both Snowflakes now? And what are you planning to do in the nearest future?

Yury Vasiliev: As for the Yamal Station, the contract was signed relatively recently (in July this year) and before that a lot of preparatory work was done, which took almost a year and a half. We have completed a design of a containerized testbed and one month ago we started purchasing basic components and equipment. Quarantine, of course, gets in the way a bit and the schedule for receiving equipment will be shifted. But in mid-November we start working with the first of the six testbed containers and "stuffing" it with equipment (for instance, the electrolysis container and hydrogen storage).
So, the main task today is to build and launch the Snowflake’s testbed on the MIPT’s campus by early 2022. In addition, by the end of spring 2022 to complete the development of design documentation and to prepare for the federal construction examination (before that, we should also pass the Federal Environmental Impact Assessment). Also, by the end of summer of 2022, we plan to finish the work on the design documentation. We are on schedule to make sure that next fall the state customer will be able to hold a tender and to select a contractor, then in late 2022 - early 2023 to start the construction work. This will depend a lot on the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and the Ministry of Construction, Housing and Utilities ("Single customer in the field of construction" company). We plan that in late 2022 - early 2023, a contractor starts the construction work. Together with our partners, we will be responsible for the supply, assembly and commissioning of all non-traditional engineering equipment (primarily renewable and hydrogen energy equipment).
We have not yet signed a contract for the second Snowflake in the Murmansk region, but everything is more or less ready for that. We have been doing preparatory work for almost a year. In spring 2024, the main part of the Station in Yamal should be built and put into test operation. As for the Station in Murmansk regions, perhaps, it will be possible to keep a similar deadline for the completion of construction, but now the main tasks are to complete all preparatory work related to the site and permissions (in November or maximum December 2021), and to sign the contract to begin design work.
At the same time, MIPT and the regional authorities in Yamal and Murmansk region will set up managing companies that will take over the Stations and will be responsible for work with academic and industrial partners on each of the Snowflakes (especially, life and other full-scale tests of the equipment). According to the TRL technology readiness levels, these are 5 (model-testing in relevant environment), 6 (tests in simulated environment), 7 (prototype testing in operational environment) and 9 (operational tests of a full-scale prototype). In other words, a Snowflake's objective is to assist the team in developing technologies, demonstrating potentials of the new technological solutions to managers and customers, and launching a product into series production.

TEKFACE: What is the approximate cost of the Yamal project and what are the sources of funding?

Yury Vasiliev: Based on our calculations, the Federal government decided on an amount of 2 billion rubles. Although, the analysis was done before the serious price increase in construction materials, especially steel structures. Based on the design results, the sum for construction will be higher, but now I cannot say exactly how expensive it will be. These are market rates. The source of funding is the Federal budget and the Federal Targeted Investment Programme. After launching, the Station will be operationally self-sufficient.

TEKFACE: Who will ensure hydrogen generation and equipment supply?

Yury Vasiliev:  As I mentioned earlier, the design stage is still in progress. Specific decisions have not yet been taken. The only thing we can say now is that it will be electrolysis technology, because we are only talking about green hydrogen. During the year, the energy generated at the wind farm will supply this electrolysis, and in summer, we will get more energy from the solar power plant. But what type of electrolyser, what capacity, who will be a supplier - all these questions are still under discussion.

TEKFACE: Have any preliminary tests been conducted yet and have the risks been identified in relation to the type of power supply and the site?

Yury Vasiliev: There are quite a lot of risks. Along with the design of the Station itself, we have just finished designing a testbed (a semi-natural stand), which represents the Snowflake power system in miniature: electro- and heat supply, hydrogen generation, storage and application. At the beginning of next year, the testbed will be in a container design at the MIPT campus. We make it quickly in order to assess many transitional moments:  integration of a variety of equipment, risks of inconsistency characteristics between the declared by manufacturers and the actual ones.
Operational work, which is planned for late winter this year or early spring 2022, will empirically obtain answers to questions that have not yet been fully answered; for instance, about the risks of the power system. But there are a lot of other risks as well, from temperatures to high winds. We chose the site that is isolated and difficult to access, and this also adds some risks. Despite the fact that we have weather stations there, we don't have accurate weather observations for a long period, this causes a quite limited understanding.
There are some logistical issues as well – the Yamal government will build a technological road to the Snowflake, and the developed infrastructure will not only serve the Snowflake, but also, for example, a ski cluster, which is planned to be built about 6 km from the Station.
As for some energy risks, we need to get a positive decision from the federal construction expertise, but we cannot legally do it relying only on wind and hydrogen. As an emergency power supply source, we are designing a diesel-generator power plant, and it should level out all energy risks (if something goes wrong with wind, sun, lithium, hydrogen). Just in test mode we will run the Snowflake with diesel, because before we start hydrogen generation and switch to a "green mode”, we need a short starting period, when there is no green energy yet, but we already have to work.
It is important to emphasize that according to the Russian law, we simply have no right to design an isolated facility without a diesel power plant or any other source of guaranteed power supply. At the same time, a diesel power plant has to be designed as if there is no wind, no sun, and no hydrogen. But in reality, it will be only an emergency option, and we design everything in order to never run the diesel generators (apart from the first start). However, taking into account that the Snowflake is an experimental facility, of course, there could be mistakes and some unpredictable situations.

TEKFACE: Was the site for the Snowflake chosen based on the wind energy potential?

Yury Vasiliev: A combination of factors were important: wind potential, logistics, and freshwater accessibility. When it comes to wind, it's not enough just to find a site where the wind is good. There are many such locations in Yamal and other regions. But in most cases, it is quite difficult to go and even harder to build foundations for wind turbines there, as well as to deliver and install equipment. Plus, there should be a relatively gentle slope to the site of the wind farm, so the necessary equipment can be brought in. And a source of fresh water nearby is very important: for domestic needs and for electrolysis in much smaller volumes.
It is necessary to analyze the logistics, there must be at least an access road, or the possibility to build it quickly and inexpensively. So, the seconded employees of industrial and academic partners should not be "dropped off" to the Station by helicopters (with the corresponding cost of the flight and dependence on weather conditions). But most of the visitors to the Station (60 out of 80 people) will be Russian and international guests, including engineers, scientists, as well as students, high-schoolers, undergraduates and graduate students - as part of educational and scientific programs. According to our estimation, the length of the access road will be 25-30 km. from the nearest settlement. This means that the route from the Salekhard airport to the Snowflake (via Labytnangi and Kharp) will take one and a half or two hours by a special all-terrain vehicle shuttle (incl. a ferry across the Ob River). So, the adventure begins on the way to the Station.
In general, we want to build a kind of "hotel for engineers and scientists", with a maximum level of sufficient comfort.

TEKFACE: And beyond all of that, what are the objectives of the Snowflake project?

Yury Vasiliev: This is an interdisciplinary platform. Even if we look at the life support system, we are practicing hydrogen power in addition to electricity, which is "green," with minimal energy consumption. Here, almost eight out of twelve months of the year is a harsh winter with polar nights, when we spend two-thirds of our energy just on heat supply. The next objectives are water treatment and water supply, sewage and wastewater treatment, waste recycling.

TEKFACE: Will you use a closed-loop recycling system?

Yury Vasiliev: At least at the beginning, there will be no incineration, no disposal, no energy generation from waste recycling. Ecology by 100% is the main principle of the Snowflake’s design. Therefore, our system is set up to ensure that almost all organics will be composted and used for soil (to plant non-fertile plants such as firs, spruces etc. and to expand the green area around the Station). Inorganic, solid household waste will be sorted (up to fifteen separate fractions), pressed, and stored separately. As the mini waste-containers are filled, they will be sent for recycling to Salekhard, and then to other cities.

TEKFACE: Who will be the staff of the Station?

Yury Vasiliev: As for today, the minimum shift’s staff is about 20 people: managers and chief engineer service team (power engineer, heating engineer, engineer of hydrogen, water, weak-current systems, etc.), as well as the staff responsible for cleaning and territory maintenance, cooks, canteen staff, and several drivers. The other 60 people, as I said before, are seconded employees who work on a rotational basis. They pay for accommodation, transfers, and meals. Separate contracts will be drawn up with Russian and foreign organizations; they will send their employees to conduct joint experimental and scientific research at the Station.

TEKFACE: And what kind of work can be done?

Yury Vasiliev: The Station will be a platform for research, and the focus will be more on applied work in the field of renewable and hydrogen energy. In addition, we plan to make geomagnetic and astronomical observatories, a specialized environmental monitoring station, as well as a site for hydrogen refueling and weather balloon launching. There will be test work on drones, automated unmanned systems (incl. hydrogen-air fuel cell systems) and on hydrogen transport (for which we are already designing a hydrogen and electric fueling station). We are also planning test sites for carbon and geotechnical solutions in permafrost. In addition, there will be work in the field of telecommunication - satellite internet in high latitudes, “Smart home/village” systems, machine-to-machine communication, the Internet of Things, aero- and hydroponics, food security technologies. We will also cover Arctic emergency medicine (incl. telemedicine) and various robotic systems: flying, floating, all-terrain vehicles, exoskeletons. So, everything designed to facilitate a man's life and work in the Arctic. Again, we are mainly talking about systems powered by hydrogen fuel cells and high specific capacity batteries. Additionally, there will be complexes for emergency prevention and for searching people in extreme conditions. Finally, the Snowflake will be a testing site for new solutions in solar and wind generation in the Arctic and in “green chemistry” based on hydrogen, lithium-based energy storage, redox flow and nickel metal hydride batteries, etc. 
We welcome colleagues from various fields and areas who are interested in full-scale tests, refinement and demonstration of their own breakthrough solutions in the real environment.

TEKFACE: One final question: if we look at the project as a whole, is the Snowflake unique? Was anything similar done in the world?

Yury Vasiliev: No, never. This is the first-of-its-kind in the world. We analyzed all the Arctic and Antarctic stations, and there is not a single facility in the world similar to the Snowflake Station. The closest analogue to us is the Belgian Antarctic station Princess Elisabeth, which actually runs on small wind turbines and solar panels. But they don't have hydrogen there, although work with hydrogen storage is planned, according to some open sources. Another very important nuance: all Antarctic stations are active for only three or four months, during the polar day in Antarctica - from November until February, maximum until March, and then they are closed. By contrast, the Snowflake will be a year-round arctic facility.
Of course, the polar night period is the most difficult. First of all, the sun disappears, but most importantly, there is a significant increase in electricity loads due to heating (by 20-30 times). It should also be noted that power systems of Antarctic stations are relatively small. For instance, the load of the Belgian station is presumably 100-200 kW, but the Snowflake’s wind farm capacity is around 1 MW and 30-40 MWh of hydrogen storage. So, the numbers are not comparable. We also have a very different area - our main multidome complex is about 5000 sq.m., plus the enclosures - about 4000 sq.m. This is a fairly large autonomous and carbon-free complex in the high latitudes.