RRS Sir David Attenborough – design with sustainability at its core

The RRS Sir David Attenborough is the latest research vessel commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (UKRI-NERC). The vessel is designed to support scientific research in extreme environments, while minimising its environmental impact. BAS recognised Houlder’s expertise as a leading design and engineering consultancy with sustainability at its core and contracted the team to work on the design of the vessel.

Specialist design

The design process began in 2012 when Houlder was commissioned by BAS to complete a life extension study on the RRS James Clark Ross – a marine research vessel that was launched back in 1990. As a part of the life extension study, the team provided a comparison between an updated RRS James Clark Ross and a new replacement vessel.

Houlder’s concept design for the new vessel was chosen, partly because it combined the research capabilities of the RRS James Clark Ross, with the cargo carrying capabilities of another BAS research vessel – the RRS Ernest Shackleton. Combining the capabilities in one vessel meant that BAS could operate more efficiently and more sustainably in the Antarctic.

The Houlder team has extensive experience in the design and engineering of specialised vessels with unique requirements and prides itself on collaborating with clients throughout the process. Houlder worked closely with BAS scientists to ensure that the design of the vessel was suitable for their research needs. The team also used its engineering experience to ensure that the design was realistic and could be cost-effectively built to the specified requirements.

Other complex design and engineering considerations included the ice-class requirements for the structure of the hull, powering calculations in ice and in open water, cargo carrying capabilities, helicopter take-off and landing capabilities, and safe scientific research facilities. Houlder integrated all of these separate elements into the shallow draft icebreaker design, while also including ways of minimising the environmental impact of the vessel.

Vessel efficiency

Houlder worked with BAS on the sustainability of the vessel throughout the design process. The vessel is powered by  diesel electric propulsion, but the team also specified a large energy storage system onboard. The batteries provide the backup power or spinning reserve to ensure the vessel can sail on one generator operating at a more efficient load  thus reducing fuel consumption. This is important when the vessel’s route is considered, from the UK to the Antarctic .

The other advantage of the RRS Sir David Attenborough’s battery system is that, when operating using its dynamic positioning system, the generators can run at a steady load while the batteries are used to smooth out the power demands during the peaks and troughs. This design provides a more stable use of power, meaning that output from generators fluctuates less and they are therefore much more efficient. The RRS Sir David Attenborough’s engines also feature Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) systems, making them compliant with the International Maritime Organization’s tier III NOx emissions standards.

The RRS Sir David Attenborough highlights the efficiency gains that can be achieved through specialist design and engineering. Vessel efficiency is more relevant than ever with the IMO’s EEXI requirements set to come into force soon. Owners have a short window to adapt any non-compliant vessels and must start assessing fleets now to understand the extent of changes required and plan a route to compliance.

Jonathan Strachan, Newbuild and Vessel Conversion Director, commented: “Complex design and engineering projects with sustainability at their core are what the Houlder team loves doing. We are proud to have been heavily involved in the development of the RRS Sir David Attenborough from the initial concept design, all the way through the tender and engineering processes and now to its sea trials. The team will continue to support and advise BAS as the vessel continues her trials and is readied for  her maiden voyage to the Antarctic.”

Andy Jeffries, Associate Director, Major Programmes Team at NERC said: “The diversity of expertise at Houlder has been essential when progressing this type of complex project to meet all the requirements needed of the vessel. Our team at NERC has particularly appreciated how Houlder has engaged with the needs of those who will ultimately use the vessel and incorporated this into the design, while maintaining a grounded engineering perspective so that tenders were realistic and mirrored the design.”

Extended projects

Following the success of the initial design work, BAS continued to work with Houlder to access expert support for the tender process and during the build phase with Camel Laird, the largest and most successful ship repair and conversion specialist in the UK.

Houlder has also been invited by UKRI to its Net Zero steering committee, which has the ambition to get to net-zero with all of its research vessels. UKRI is the owner of all NERC vessels, such as the RRS Sir David Attenborough. The team is looking forward to supporting UKRI in achieving its net-zero ocean science capability.

Houlder has a track-record of over 3,000 projects spanning newbuild design, retrofits, specialist vessels and conversions, and offshore equipment design, installation and mobilisation.

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