Canada and U.S. collaborate on icebreakers of the future

- St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

A demonstration of the icebreaking testing at the National Research Council of Canada in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Where do you go when you want a new polar icebreaker? If you are the United States Coast Guard, you turn to the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) to access its world-class expertise. Then you can use the NRC's renowned ice tank facilities in St. John's, Newfoundland, to model and evaluate the specifications needed to design a new fleet of ships.

Although the U.S. Coast Guard, overseen by the United States Department of Homeland Security, and the United States Navy have a lot of experience in designing and building other vessels, it has been decades since they commissioned a heavy polar icebreaker.

"Icebreakers are a specialty build, so it made sense to pool resources on the research and development," said Dr. David Murrin, Director General of the Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre at the NRC. "There is much to be learned in designing this new generation of icebreaker, and both of our countries will greatly benefit from this international scientific and engineering collaboration."

For polar nations like Canada and the United States, icebreakers are strategic to national sovereignty and play a crucial role in opening safe waterways for other marine traffic to supply northern indigenous communities, explore for resources, and study climate change.

"Model testing activities enable us to examine critical design elements and make informed design decisions early in the acquisition process," said Rear Admiral Michael Haycock, U.S. Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Acquisition and Chief Acquisition Officer. "The data we gathered from model testing at the NRC is going to be a major driver of our heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program's success and will be critical to our efforts to effectively manage costs, mitigate risks, and maintain an accelerated program schedule."

Formalized through the Critical Infrastructure Protection and Border Security (CIPBS) Agreement, the partnership facilitates collaborative testing and evaluation. The results will boost both countries' expertise in icebreaking ship technologies.

The NRC tops in icebreaking research

Why did the U.S. Coast Guard choose the NRC?

The NRC's laboratory in St. John's, Newfoundland, is home to one of the world's largest ice tank facilities used to evaluate the performance and safety of ice-going ships and structures in controlled model-scale conditions. Engineers in the NRC's ice tank have been preparing models and testing icebreakers for more than 50 years. The NRC also boasts more than 30 years of data and expertise in validating the predictive capabilities of its models against real-life performance of vessels in Arctic conditions.

Modelling the hull designs

By April 2017, the project was up and running – with scale models ready for testing potential ship designs for their propulsion capabilities, ice resistance, and maneuverability. A ship captain steered the models through the various tests, including the ridge penetration test that measures how well a ship can smash through a ridge of ice that might be 20 metres deep and go on for miles.

"Our top priority was to discover which hull shape would be most fuel-efficient without compromising ice-breaking capability," said Dr. Jim Millan, Director, Research and Development for the NRC's Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre. "We need to be able to design ahead for the next 30 to 40 years."

Innovation for today and the future

Looking ahead, the partners hope to continue to gather valuable data that all the Canadian and U.S. partners can use.

Instrumentation installed on the upcoming Canadian and U.S. icebreakers will collect real-time data on their operation and impact on the fragile environments in which they serve. Data on fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and other factors will be fed back into the design process for future ships. Data coming from the project will be stored for both governments in a central data bank managed by Defence Research & Development Canada (DRDC).

A key benefit to the NRC is the opportunity for a new generation of researchers to gain hands-on experience in modelling this specialized class of vessels that are designed to operate in some of the world's harshest ocean conditions. This knowledge will be transferred to the NRC's focus on providing world-class expertise to improve the performance and safety of ocean, coastal, and marine structures and meeting the challenges of climate change, severe weather events, and other environmental risks.

Canada-U.S. partners:

  • National Research Council of Canada (NRC)
  • U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate
  • United States Navy
  • Defence Research and Development Canada's Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), an agency of the Department of National Defence (DND)

The Ice Tank

At 90 metres long, the NRC's ice tank runs the same length as the Peace Tower on Canada's Parliament Hill or the U.S. Statue of Liberty. Everything is built to scale – both the model ships and the various ice conditions. If a vessel is 120 metres long, the model will be four metres long (assuming a scale factor of 1:30). Not a detail is overlooked, even the ship's hull paint is duplicated. The ice tank team can model a wide range of ice conditions, including first-year and multi-year ice, pack, ridged, and glacial ice.

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