The Arctic beyond fiction


The Arctic is, perhaps, the most unique region of the planet. Stunningly beautiful, but at the same time almost unsuitable for human existence. For many centuries, people tried to explore this mysterious region — travelers discovered transport routes, new islands, previously inaccessible territories. The geostrategic significance of the Arctic is becoming increasingly apparent. The Northern Sea Route is exactly what can breathe new life into the global economy. Controlling this path will ensure the owner prosperity and excellence. The struggle of world players for this control will soon manifest itself with all the evidence.

USSR/Russia has made one of the most tangible contributions to the development of the Arctic. One hundred years ago, the development of the Arctic was a kind of «gold rush» in USSR.  It was the romance of distant travels, dangerous adventures, overcoming oneself, expanding the boundaries of what is permitted, fantastic dreams of a new life in conditions of unapproachable eternal cold…

In this post ALAFF provides a translation of one of the chapters of the book «The Arctic beyond fiction». The book was published by the «Paulsen» Publishing House — one of the few in Russia specializing in «Arctic» literature.

The book was released in 2018, in limited edition of 1000 copies only (first edition). An excerpt from the annotation:

«This book is dedicated to those Russian and Soviet Arctic projects that were not destined to come true. Among them are exotic vehicles and a dam through the Bering Strait, polar cities and new transport routes. The authors of the projects were both serious scientists and engineers, as well as enthusiasts who did not have special training, but were not indifferent to the future of the country, the prosperity of which was often associated with the development of the Arctic».

The material may be interesting to those who are interested in the Arctic region, the history of its development, the Arctic projects (including the most incredible).

Arctic energy

Energy supply has always been one of the most serious problems in the Arctic. Electricity necessary for lighting and heating of houses, as well as for the operation of mechanisms, was to be delivered over long distances (which entailed the problem of constructing power transmission lines in severe conditions of permafrost and impassability) or be generated locally using relatively low-power generators.

As early as the 1930s, various options for the development of polar energy appeared. The most exotic was the idea of obtaining electricity by melting ice, borrowed from Western engineers. Tidal and wind power stations seemed to be more realistic, however, specific technical solutions for installation of wind turbines were not feasible in practice. Variants of the installation of generators on airships and huge steel structures, a kind of «sails», were suggested.

Projects of Arctic nuclear and hydroelectric power stations seemed to be much more practical. In the postwar period, mobile nuclear power plants on the chassis of heavy caterpillar vehicles reached the stage of prototypes. A grand program of Arctic hydro construction was also developed, but technical and environmental problems was the reason to abandon its implementation.

Energy from the cold

In the 1920s, a project was developed by the French engineers G. Claude and P. Bushero to derive energy from the warmth of tropical deserts or waters. Then another Frenchman, Bargeau, proposed receiving energy using the temperature difference between the polar seas and the air of the Arctic regions. If water is pumped out from under the ice and allowed to freeze, the heat obtained could heat the volatile liquid to evaporation, which, in its turn, would activate the turbine. The exhaust gas is then converted again into the liquid in the coolers. The ideas of Bargeau were described in detail in the review in the journal «Science and Technology» (1930), and then in the book by V.N. Lebedev «Arctic» and in the articles of G. Gunther and A. Pan [1].

The most suitable liquid for obtaining energy from the cold, according to Bargeau, was liquid butane hydrocarbon, the boiling point of which at normal atmospheric pressure is 17 degrees Celsius below zero.

The French scientist has also developed a model of a boiler in which water at 0 degrees Celsius is mixed with liquid butane. Butane vapor rushes through the branch pipe into the turbine, propelling it into motion. The turbine, in turn, sets in motion a dynamo. To supply energy during a round-the-clock power plant with a capacity of 30 thousand hp, according to Bargeau’s calculations, it would take a salt lake of 1 km² square, frozen to a depth of 15 cm. The scientist went further and proposed to build a closed circular channel, with both ends communicating with the turbine. The channel could also be held in the thickness of the ice cover on a lake, river or sea, where a turbine will be built.


Radiators of ice power stations. Image by G.I. Pokrovsky
Technology to youth. 1979. № 2

The energy received in this way would be quite cheap. This was especially important for the Arctic region, where there is very little fuel, and its extraction is fraught with enormous difficulties. Soviet engineers believed that the ideas of the French scientist would be realized not in Canada, as Bargeau believed, but «here in the USSR» [2].

The idea of using the Arctic cold to generate energy decades later again took hold of the minds of scientists.


The polar power station layout scheme according to Bargeau (cited by A. Pan).
From underneath the ice, through pipes, protected by heat-insulating material, the ice water goes into the boiler room to the boilers. In these boilers-evaporators — liquid cold butane. Water is injected, and under the influence of its heat (the water is warmer than butane, although it has a temperature of only 2 degrees Celsius), butane begins to boil. Its vapors are leaded through a pipeline to the turbine, and the water, from which a cold butane takes away the heat, freezes and falls to the bottom of the evaporators as ice groats, from where it is continuously raked (butane does not mix with water). Butane vapor passes through the turbine and drives it into rotation, so a dynamo gives an amperage. Further, butane vapor enters a condenser-refrigerator, to where pieces of frozen ice brine with a temperature of -22 degrees Celsius are continuously fed. While cooling, the butane vapor is compressed, and the «salty ice» heats up and melts. The liquid butane is returned through the pipes back to the evaporator. The melted ice brine is released outside into the pools and there it freezes again under the influence of a low temperature of the surrounding air.


Polar power station of Bargeau. The external appearance (Pan A. At the threshold of a new energy era // Technique to Youth, 1935. № 4. P. 45).

It has been calculated that in winter up to a trillion tons of snow falls on the territory of the USSR, and its melting is accompanied by a transfer of heat, which is enough (according to calculations) to generate 2 trillion kW/h of electricity (this is twice the total energy balance including oil, coal, gas and nuclear energy). Therefore, in the special conditions of the Arctic and Antarctica, «ice energy» could be profitable. Professor G.I. Pokrovsky believed that in the Arctic it would be possible to create a station in which there would be a boiler with a liquid whose boiling point would be above 0 degrees Celsius, but below ambient temperature: «Under such conditions, the liquid will necessarily boil, and the resulting vapor will begin to produce work in a reciprocating engine or turbine.When it is completed, the spent steam will flow into the device, cooled by melting snow or ice» [3]. Thus G.I. Pokrovsky proposed the idea of ​​an ice power station, urging young inventors and innovators to continue research in a given direction.

«Flying wind power station — the task of the near future»

In the 1930s, the use of alternative types of energy was actively discussed. In particular — the use of wind energy. The brave project was presented by engineer V. Egorov on the pages of the journal «Technique to Youth» in 1938. He proposed to create powerful wind farms not on the ground, but in the air, where at an altitude of 600-700 m above the ground there are very significant wind speeds. V. Egorov’s wind-powered unit consisted of a «double-bladed wind wheel, mounted on one shaft with a limiting coupling, a reducer and a generator mounted in a special metal casing reminiscent of the exterior of the fuselage of the aircraft». The coupling was designed «to limit the torque at possible jolts and unexpected gusts of wind». The reducer served «to increase the number of revolutions transmitted from the wind wheel to the synchronous alternator». Such a simple design of the wind farm could be installed on high supports.


Illustrations by A. Katkovsky to V. Egorov’s article «Power Plant in the Air» (Technique to Youth, 1938. No. 12. P. 37.)

But the author came up with a more effective, in his opinion, way. He proposed the use of airships: «A system of wind power units is suspended on steel cables to the all-metal hull of the airship. All units are connected by lightweight but very strong metal trusses, which prevents the displacement of wind turbines relative to each other and gives rigidity to the entire suspension system as a whole. At the same time these metal trusses can serve also for movement of the attendants» [4].

Was it technically possible at the time? The author of the article believed that yes: «Already now there are airships with an all-metal hull with a volume of 70 thousand m³. It is quite possible to build such a hull that we need. Moreover, there are technical designs of such airships. If the all-metal airships of this volume were not built before, it is mainly because they were not of special need» [5]. Such a flying wind power station could work in any combination — independently, in a combination with ground stations or together with another air power plant, etc.

Such flying wind power stations would be of «immense, absolutely invaluable importance» in areas where it is very difficult or impossible to build a ground station, for example, in swampy areas, in the desert, «in regions where there is no local fuel, and imported fuel is very far away, and especially in the Arctic», which is «unusually rich in strong, constantly blowing winds, and here you can create huge power stations in the air». Looking into the future, the author of the article imagined the following picture: «Powerful giant icebreakers plow the waters and break through the ice of the Arctic Ocean. These icebreakers do not need fuel — they use the energy of flying power stations above them and moored to the stern» [6].


Illustrations by K. Artseulov to V. Egorov’s article «Power Station in the Air» (Technique to Youth, 1938. No. 12).
Konstantin Konstantinovich Artseulov (17(29).05.1891 — 18.03.1980) — Russian and Soviet pilot, illustrator, grandson of artist I.K. Aivazovsky. The First World War and the Civil War participant. He was the first in the world to take a plane out of a corkscrew, which puts him on par with P. Nesterov. The organizer of the school of gliding in the USSR, the tester of the first Soviet jet fighter. He was repressed, and then ceased to fly on airplanes, became a glider and artist-designer, watercolorist. He designed more than 50 books, collaborated with the magazines «Technique to Youth», «Knowledge is Strength», «Wings of the Motherland», «Young Technician», etc. Participated in the publication of the Children’s Encyclopaedia.

P. Dyuzhev’s article described a different type of airship wind engine. Having accomplished the task of transporting passengers and cargo, the aircraft would rise to a height of 600 m, where it would be held by steel cables. There, «on aircraft’s shell the blades opens, coming in several rows», and the hull «becomes a powerful wheel of the wind engine» [7]. These ideas of the use of airships have remained unrealizable.


photo — Vladimir Petrovich Vetchinkin and Anatoly Georgievich Ufimtsev
Vladimir Petrovich Vetchinkin (17(29).06.1888 — 06.03.1950) — Doctor of Technical Sciences, a scientist who worked in the field of aerodynamics, wind power, missile technology. Honored Worker of Science and Technology of the RSFSR (1946), full member of the Academy of Artillery Sciences (1947). Winner of the Stalin Prize.
Anatoly Georgievich Ufimtsev (1880 — 1936) is a self-taught scientist, inventor of a wind power electric motor.

In the early 1930s, engineers V.P. Vetchinkin and A.G. Ufimtsev began their work on new types of wind turbines. Looking far ahead, they suggested using multi-wind frame wind farms. According to this project, a frame heavy-duty wind power plant for 100 thousand kW consists of 224 wind wheels (diameter of each is 20 m). Wind wheels mounted on a common vertical frame, having the form of a giant rhombus: «Rhombus is fixed on a vertical swivel tower, which with its lower end rests on a hydraulic thrust bearing, and with its upper end fixed in a bearing held by braces. From the front and back sides of the rhombus, from its central tower, a horizontal lattice trusses protrudes back and forth with ridgepoles, which increase the rigidity of the whole structure.


Wind power dam of V.P. Vetchinkin and A.G. Ufimtsev. Illustration by V. Filatov and L. Bashkirtsev to the article by B. Kazhinsky and A. Karmishin «Wind-power dams» (Technique to Youth, 1951. № 12. P. 16, 20).

Rear trusses on their ends carry a tail surface. The purpose of this device is to rotate the rhombus with wind wheels facing the wind» [8]. The dimensions of the unit are large: the width of the rhombus is up to 500 m, the weight is about 10 thousand tons, the height is 350 m (that is almost the same height as the tallest building in the world) [9]. The use of such units — a wind dams — was possible in various parts of the country (including in the Arctic and Novaya Zemlya).

image [8] — Megawatt catch of the wind trawl. Image by N. Vechkanov // Technology to youth. 1980. № 11
image [9] — Illustration by K. Artseulov to the article by B. Kazhinsky and A. Karmishin «Wind-power dams».
Technology to youth. 1951. No. 12

The project of a large frame wind power station proved to be unprofitable — according to A. Ostrovsky, deputy general director of the «Cyclone» NGO, given in 1980, the cost of 1 kWh of energy from the wind farm is very high compared to the cost of 1 kWh from traditional producers. Therefore, subsequently it was decided to turn only to the idea of developing small wind turbines (with a capacity of up to 16 kW) [10].


Mobile nuclear power plants

Post-war successes of nuclear energy contributed to the development of mobile nuclear power plants, which were intended to be used in the regions of the Far North (primarily for military needs). The main project of the mobile nuclear power plant was TPP-3 (a transportable nuclear power plant). The idea of the project belonged to E.P. Slavskiy, and the direct authors of the development were scientists from the Obninsk Institute of Physics and Energy Y.A. Sergeev and D.L. Broder.

The mobile ground station had a dual-circuit water-water reactor and was a complex of four caterpillar vehicles — «power self-propelled vehicles» on the extended chassis of a heavy tank T-10. One such machine housed a reactor, the second one — a steam generator, a volume compensator and pumps of the first circuit. The third machine was carrying a generator that produced energy, and on the fourth power self-propelled vehicle it was a station control point and the reserve power equipment. The station could not work on the go. To run it, it was necessary to arrange the power self-propelled vehicles in the right order, connect them with pipelines for the heat carrier and working fluid, lay cables.

photo — Efim Pavlovich Slavskiy
Efim Pavlovich Slavskiy (07.11.1898 — 28.11.1991) — Soviet statesman, one of the organizers and leaders of the nuclear industry in the USSR. By education he is a metallurgical engineer (in 1933 he graduated from the Institute of Non-Ferrous Metals and Gold in Moscow). In 1946-1953 he was deputy chief of the 1st Main Directorate under the USSR Council of Ministers, the organizer of the production of weapons-grade plutonium for the first Soviet atomic bomb. In 1953-1955, he was deputy, and in 1955-1957 — First Deputy Minister of Medium Machine Building of the USSR. In 1957-1986 he was Minister of Medium Machine Building of the USSR. With the participation and under the leadership of E.P. Slavsky a Soviet hydrogen bomb was developed, nuclear power plants were built, the nuclear industry developed, the nuclear shield of the country strengthened. Twice winner of the Stalin Prize. Three times a Hero of Socialist Labor, he was awarded with ten Orders of Lenin, two Orders of the Red Banner of Labor, the Orders of the October Revolution, the Orders of the Patriotic War of the 1st degree, many medals, and foreign awards.

Experimental start-up of the finished station took place in 1961. The tests continued until 1965. Simultaneously, the Obninsk designers designed the floating nuclear power plant «Sever» (it was intended to be used for defense tasks and to help oil workers working on the Arctic shelf). The station was supposed to have two water-water reactors with a capacity of 3 MW each. But in 1967 the Ministry of Defense refused the floating station, and all the work on TPP-3 was canceled.

Another variant of the land mobile nuclear power plant was created by Belarusian designers and was named «Pamir-630D». Started under the direction of V.B. Nesterenko in 1963, the development of its individual units dragged on for many years. The station was completely ready only in the 1980s.


photo — This was the view of the energy self-propelling machines of TPP-3 station — a transportable nuclear power plant.

The station had a single-circuit reactor, which was located on a three-axle trailer with a tractor MAZ-994. To reduce water consumption at «Pamir» NPP, a highly toxic nitrogen tetraoxide was used as heat carrier and working fluid. In total, the complex involved five vehicles. The first launch of the station took place shortly before the Chernobyl accident. In 1988 the project was curtailed [11]. Similar projects of mobile nuclear power plants were created in the United States.

Nowadays there are also projects of mobile nuclear power plants for the Arctic, one of which is the floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov, which is under construction (commissioning is scheduled for 2019).


Plans for hydro construction in the Arctic

The traditional way of obtaining cheap electricity is the use of hydro resources. In the 30-60-ies of the twentieth century, the leadership of the USSR took up large-scale hydro-construction projects in order to industrialize the country. These projects concerned including the Arctic zone, however, most of the projects were never implemented.

Leading organization for the design of HPP «Hydroproject» worked out options for the construction of giant hydroelectric facilities in the Arctic, among which two megaprojects — Nizhneobskaya and Nizhnelenskaya HPPs — should be specially noted.

Nizhneobskaya HPP was considered as the most important part of the planned Unified Energy System for the redistribution of energy flows between the European part of the USSR and Siberia. In total it was planned to build three hydropower cascades on the rivers Ob, Irtysh, Tom. Nizhneobskaya HPP was conceived as the last in a series of a cascade of 10 Ob HPPs and was designed as the most large-scale. Its preliminary capacity was 6 million kW/h with a reservoir area of ​​113 thousand km² (for comparison — the area of ​​the White Sea about 90 thousand km²). Three variants of dam construction site were designed — Narykarsk, Andrinsk and Salekhard, the latter was considered a priority. Nizhneobskaya HPP was supposed to provide electricity to the industry of the Tyumen region and the Urals. The project was actively discussed at various levels of government, as well as in an expert society, the interests of proponents of hydropower development on the one hand and the oil and gas industry on the other collided around it. By the beginning of the design, the prospects of the oil and gas potential of the territory falling under flooding were not yet clear. The construction of the Nizhneobskaya HPP was supported by the Tyumen Region Committee of the CPSU, and it could well have been carried out if not for the discovery of gas and oil fields in the Siberian Ural and Middle Ob area in the 1950s, after which the project was gradually forgotten.

Nizhnelenskaya HPP was designed in the so-called Lena «pipe» — a narrow place before the confluence of the river in the Laptev Sea, where it passes through the Verkhoyansk Range. It was planned that the length of the dam would be about 2300 m, and the height — 118 m. The area of ​​the Nizhnelenskoe Sea was over 60 thousand km² in the project, and the water area of ​​the reservoir extended 1500 km up the river almost to Yakutsk city. The annual design capacity of the HPP is about 100 billion kW/h, which is four times more powerful than the Bratsk HPP. If successful, Lena would turn into a deep-water route, which was planned to be continued by the Lena — the Sea of ​​Okhotsk canal. Such a water system would allow sea vessels from the Northern Sea Route to directly enter the water area of ​​the Pacific Ocean through Lena and the canal, shortening the path by several thousand kilometers [12].

Technical difficulties, the lack of direct consumers of electricity near the planned dam and the difficult-to-calculate environmental consequences led to the suspension of this project.

[1] Arctic cold as a source of energy // Science and technology. 1930. No. 22. Pp. 5-6; Günther G. Arctic Power Station // Knowledge is Power. 1933. No. 7-8. Pp. 2-3; Lebedev N.K. Arctic. S.-L., 1932. Pp. 141-145; Pan A. At the threshold of a new energy era // Technique to youth. 1935. No. 4. Pp. 43-47.

[2] Pan A. At the threshold of a new energy era // Technique to youth. 1935. No. 4. P. 46.

[3] Pokrovsky G. Santa Claus and energy // Technique to youth. 1979. № 2. P. 6.

[4] Egorov V. Power station in the air // Technique to youth. 1938. No. 12. P. 34.

[5] ibid. P. 36.

[6] ibid.

[7] Dyuzhev P. Airship wind engine // Technique to youth. 1940. № 1. P. 56.

[8] Kazhinsky B., Karmishin A. Wind power dams / Images by V. Filatov, L. Bashkirtsev // Technique to youth. 1951. № 12. P. 18.

[9] The height of 350 meters was significant for the 1930s. Then the tallest building in the world was the skyscraper Empire State Building (New York, USA; the top floor height was 373.1 m, the height with a spire was 443.2 m; the structure held a palm in height from 1931 to 1970 year). Now the tallest building is the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, towering 828 m (Dubai, UAE).

[10] Ostrovsky A. Good Old «Sails» // Technique to youth. 1980. № 11. P. 24.

[11] Mobile NPP (FAPP):

[12] See more: Komgort M.V., Koleva G.Y. The problem of increasing the level of industrial development in Western Siberia and the project for the construction of the Nizhneobskaya HPP // Tomsk State University Bulletin. 2008. Vol. 308. Pp. 85-90; Magritsky D.V. Natural and anthropogenic changes in the hydrological regime of the lower reaches and mouths of the largest rivers in Eastern Siberia. Diss. … Cand. geograph. sciences. M., 2001.

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