To watch the interview in Russian, click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7m1sbIkqQA&t=286s
English translation of the interview below.
- Today our guest is a man who knows everything about the present and the future of the International Arctic Station “Snowflake”, one of the “Snowflake” project creators - Yury Vasiliev, Executive Director of the Institute of Arctic Technologies, MIPT.
- Thank you for inviting me, I'm glad to be here.
- Yury, several places were considered for the construction of the Snowflake station and the Jade Valley was chosen, why? What makes this area so special?
- There are several reasons: firstly, it is important for us to be close to the ski cluster, which is now being created in Yamal, because it helps us to have reasonable infrastructure costs; but secondly, it's very important for us to have a golden mean, in terms of the Snowflake’s remoteness from the city. So, on the one hand, it should be an autonomous station in a completely uninhabited area, but on the other hand, we also expect frequent guest visits from engineers, scientists, students, graduate students and high-schoolers. Thus, the logistics of this “bridge” between the station and “civilization” is significant (also due to safety reasons). That's why we stopped at this golden mean: A very beautiful and stunning place and at the same time when the road or even the technological road has finished construction, it will only take a maximum of 1 and a half hours to traverse from the airport to the station.
Moreover, we had been searching for a specific territory based on two main criteria: the first and foremost is the wind potential (not less than six to seven meters per second), that’s why we had to reject a lot of no less beautiful places; and the second criteria is a nearby source of drinking water.
- According to the station’s autonomy, when I talked to the chief power engineer of the Snowflake project, he noted that the main source of electricity will be wind farms. How will it all work and be powered?
- Well, we are building a completely ecological project. So, we can only have energy from renewable sources. Of course, we'll also have a solar plant. The sun will give us extra energy on a polar day, but since we are talking about the Arctic, we need most of the energy during the polar nights; therefore, we need to mainly focus on the wind. Additionally, there will be some energy from a low-potential heat pump in a nearby lake, but this is a relatively small amount of energy.
Talking about the wind farm, in principle, wind farms are being built at high latitudes like in the Arctic, but it should be taken into account that the Snowflake’s wind farm is designed like a container. So, everything is quite compact, because we won't be able to transport oversized large wind turbines there, especially since there is no need for them. Thus, we are limited to a 40-foot container or about 12 m x 12 m. We have a blade 11 х 80, the diameter of the wind wheel is 25m and at an altitude of about 30-40m it runs a generator, creating about 100-150kw, which will work effectively in these conditions. Our wind farm will consist of five of these machines, so we will have about a 700-750 kW power rating. Of course, we also plan to extend and develop, because it is important to understand that since the station’s life at the Snowflake will have just begun we plan the work cycle to last at least 20 to 30 years.
- As I understand, there will be a wind farm and some storage, where all this energy will come and then it will be distributed.
- Of course, let's make a distinction. The whole world figured out a long time ago that the biggest obstacle from renewable energy sources is intermittence. Even the wind, if it seems that it doesn't blow strong enough, but in fact, by accurate measurement, you see that the wind is constantly fluctuating. Moreover, you will never be able to synchronize one-to-one the RES power generation and its consumption, you will always have an imbalance. Therefore, you cannot work without energy accumulation and the simplest thing to do – is to have batteries. As of today, the most effective batteries are the lithium-based ones. They contain the most energy, but are also the most expensive. Because of the expense, the energy industry has the task to accumulate energy through a hydrologic cycle, which is a fairly simple technology on the one hand, but the question is how to set it up.
We all learned at school that hydrogen can be produced by the electrolysis of water. You produce hydrogen, then you store it and the storage can be in various forms: in metal hydrides, in compressed liquid forms, in liquid organic carriers etc. There are many options, but we will use the simplest and safest way - hydrogen compressed at a very low pressure of about 35-40 atmospheres, which will gain us about 250-300 kW per electrolyzer. In fact, we will store hydrogen in special tanks, to put it simply, it will be a big battery.
Another interesting point to make, when we will not have enough wind energy, how do we get electricity and heat from this stored hydrogen? In that case we will use the so-called “fuel cells” (not to be confused with nuclear power). The fuel cell has the same membranes and is essentially the reverse of electrolysis.
When you put hydrogen on one side of the membrane, you put oxygen from the atmosphere on the other side; combining this creates a chemical reaction that is absolutely safe and environmentally friendly. We place the fuel cells directly in our station (in domes), and we get so-called individual heat points - hydrogen-based energy regeneration centers. In fact, the first three floors are the areas where people live, work, and eat, and on the top, there are small hydrogen generation centers, where we distribute this energy throughout the whole station and its infrastructure facilities. There will be heating networks, underfloor heating, fan coil units, traditional heating and heat carriers.
- Yury, talking about the station itself, for who and why are you building it?
- The main goal is to make proper connection between applied science and industry/manufacturers. The station will be focused more on real research of technological prototypes that are about to emerge and that are quite difficult to implement immediately into modern-day industry. Additionally, any business company always wants to see how a new technology works and ideally if it were possible, to test this technology with minimal costs and on some independent test site. In this sense, to put it in an exaggerated way, the main purpose of the station is a test site for new technologies. The main tasks of the project are not specifically scientific, but rather, I would say, the work of development engineers to test technologies in real conditions, together with industrial companies to prepare these technologies for their launch into mass production. Simply speaking, engineers together with industry representatives will visit the station in order to integrate technology into a real existing facility. So, we will temporarily put the main engineering energy systems in reserve and test the new experimental systems in a real test. If something goes wrong, we always have a reserve, and that is why we work with engineers that are there and able to fix all the mistakes. We agree on a test program in advance and develop it, then our main task is to quickly prepare tested technology for mass production in the industry.
Together with MIPT partners, in addition to energy, we develop telecommunications, medicine, aero-hydroponics, various robotic systems, auxiliary aircraft, all the science and research about the earth, nature, permafrost etc. So, we don't have any critical limitations, for example, we work with this and not with that; anything that can experimentally fit into the mode of the real object we will be happy to work with.
- In principle, can these technologies be used in Yamal?
- We are actually doing this for Yamal, for the Russian Arctic, as well as for energy isolated and hard-to-reach areas, that are not necessarily in the Arctic (for example Siberia and the Far East).
- Scientists who do the fieldwork and investigate permafrost, flora, fauna, will they be able to be based in the Snowflake?
- Of course, the station will also be for, let’s say, traditional scientists - those who emphasis more on fundamental science like flora and fauna. Moreover, the Jade Valley, the Rai-Iz Mountain and the Polar Urals in general - are good places to investigate nature, take soil and water samples, and conduct field research right there within a wide radius of the Snowflake station.
- Yuri, when will people be able to go there? Are there any, at least, presumptive dates?
- It is always difficult to talk about deadlines, especially when it comes to design and construction works. We recently signed an agreement with the governor, we have officially begun the design and now we are working on estimate documentation. According to our schedule, at the end of May 2022, we will have started the Governmental Expert Appraisal of Design Documentation and (or) Engineering Survey and then by the next summer get a positive decision. Before that we have to go through an environmental impact assessment. In fall 2022, the Federal State Contractor should call a tender and determine the contractor for the station’s construction.
On the one hand, you could say, it's quite a long time; but on the other hand, believe me, we're not talking about just a construction site, it is a big and unique engineering project. We will even develop special some technical requirements (incl. for hydrogen technologies), because either they do not exist yet or they are suitable only for industrial facilities, which does not work for us. Therefore, these deadlines and timelines are not very far away or very long but the logistics in the Jade Valley will make the construction a bit easier.
So, we expect that by the end of 2023 the bulk of the construction work will have been completed. Of course, construction is always a challenging process and we're going to have quite a difficult engineering task. Most likely, we will launch into test operation at first, and then gradually launch all the other systems.
- Thank you for our interesting discussion.
- Thank you!