The Nord Stream gas pipeline is an epic structure that offers a glimpse of the advanced engineering needed to fuel the modern world.
Right now the planet’s demand for energy is growing at an exponential rate. Each year more people are born and more homes are built to accommodate them, with each new property needing to be supplied with electricity and gas. This hunger for energy is ravenous and, looking forward, it seems to show no sign of abating.
To combat this ever-rising need for power, creative new energy-generating technologies are being implemented, with renewability at their heart. Progress has and is already being made in this pursuit, with wind farms, marine turbines and solar power stations increasingly contributing to national energy grids.
This is undoubtedly the best way forward for our planet. Unfortunately though, right now the demand for energy far outweighs that being inputted by renewable sources, with a very real deficit needing to be addressed.
For Europe, that deficit is being met by the brand-new Nord Stream twin pipeline system, a 1,224-kilometre (760-mile) pair of gas pipes running along the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The pipeline links north-west Russia with north-east Germany and, as of January 2013, has the capacity to transport up to 55 billion cubic metres (1.9 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas per year from the gas fields of Siberia directly into the heart of Europe.
As you might expect, the pipeline is not without its critics. With a life span in excess of 50 years, the Nord Stream will see non-renewable energy continued to be spent and, due to the pipeline’s large capacity, at an increased rate for the foreseeable future. In addition, due to the pipeline passing through 1,224 kilometres (760 miles) of the Baltic Sea, environmental organizations – including the World Wide Fund for Nature – have raised serious concerns regarding the project’s potential to damage or displace complex ecosystems and delicate marine habitats.
While these environmental concerns are something we can’t ignore in the long term, there is no denying the fact that the Nord Stream is one of the most impressive engineering feats ever undertaken. On both a macro and micro level, the project is centred around cutting-edge technology such as an undersea station capable of housing 24 divers, advanced logistical systems like pipe-laying barges up to four times the length of a football pitch, and supersmart electronics able to operate machines and vehicles hundreds of metres beneath the sea’s surface.
In this post We takes a closer look at the Nord Stream twin pipeline system to find out not only how it was put together, but also – regardless of its non-renewable crutch – how it demonstrates just how science and technology can help improve the lives of millions and power future development.
The smartest PIGs on the planet?
The Nord Stream has its integrity checked regularly by pipeline inspection gauges (PIGs). PIGs are like intelligent drain cleaners, being inserted into the pipes before proceeding to automatically detect the smallest changes in the pipeline’s structure – due to corrosion, for example – and recording that for later analysis at a control station. PIGs are also able to register any possible movements that the pipeline may have made since installation, such as those generated by small impacts. Each PIG is inserted into the Nord Stream pipeline via a launcher based in Russia, before being fired through the system and extracted in Germany. If any issues are detected, a maintenance and repair team is dispatched to investigate.
Laying millions of tons of concrete and steel on the Baltic Sea’s seabed was not only an epic logistical challenge but also an environmental one. The potential effect to irreversibly damage the seafloor during the laying of a pipeline on this scale can be massive, displacing ecologies of ocean wildlife, injecting huge quantities of silt into the water and destabilizing the landscape.
As such, prior to the laying of the pipeline more than 40,000 kilometres (24,850 miles) of geophysical surveys were conducted, with thousands of regions inspected and catalogued. This allowed the optimal route to be established in order to mitigate damage. In addition, to safeguard the sea since the installation, an environmental monitoring programme has been initiated that, with a fleet of specialist vessels including remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), will assess the water quality, seabed recovery and local fish, bird and mammal populations.
The gas for the Nord Stream pipeline comes from the Yuzhno-Russkoye oil field in Tyumen Oblast, Russia. The pool of gas lies about a kilometer (0.6 miles) below the region’s surface where there is estimated to be in excess of 1 trillion cubic metres (35 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas, with an additional 5.7 million tons of proven oil reserves. Currently there are 26 gas wells in operation at Yuzhno-Russkoye, extracting more than 15 million cubic metres (530 million cubic feet) of natural gas per day, the majority now flowing the 2,415-kilometre (1,500-mile) distance to Vyborg.