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A helicopter transports goods and materials from China"s research icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, to Zhongshan Station in the Antarctic in December. BAI GUOLONG/XINHUA

Chinese scientists have begun preliminary research on a next-generation icebreaker capable of lengthy research missions in the Arctic and Antarctica, according to the program"s chief designer.

"The new type will be much stronger when it comes to capabilities in breaking ice and resisting extreme cold," Wu Gang, from the Marine Design and Research Institute of China in Shanghai, told China Daily in an exclusive interview.

"It will be able to break ice about 3 meters thick and withstand -45 C, which means it can stay for a long time in polar regions," he said.

The new type of research icebreaker will be assigned long-term scientific expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctica, helping other ships enter polar regions and responding to emergencies in ice-covered areas.

Though some heavy-duty polar icebreakers are nuclear-powered, this new ship will use a conventional propulsion system, Wu said.

Experts with knowledge of the program said there are two reasons for that: First, modern non-nuclear propulsion technology has become capable of powering heavy-duty icebreakers; second, conventional systems are easier to maintain than nuclear ones.

The next-generation icebreaker will complete China"s global marine survey network and extensively boost its polar research, Wu said.

China now operates a sole icebreaker, Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, which was designed for cargo transportation rather than scientific research operations when it was built in Ukraine in 1993. The ship was purchased by China and converted to a polar research and resupply vessel. It has fulfilled dozens of scientific expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica.

Meanwhile, China State Shipbuilding Corp is constructing the country"s second - and the first domestically designed - research icebreaker, tentatively known as Xuelong 2, at its Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. The construction started in December 2016 and is scheduled to be finished in 2019.

The ship will be able to break 1.5-m-thick ice and endure - 30 C. It has good mobility and incorporates strict environmental protection measures, Wu said.

In another development, China Ship Development and Design Center, part of China Shipbuilding Industry Corp, is designing fishing ships for domestic users to catch Antarctic krill, a small crustacean often used as animal feed and bait. The center is also assisting the Ministry of Agriculture with the country"s first guidebook on construction of polar fishing ships, the center said.

China has been paying a lot of attention to scientific research and peaceful development in polar regions. It has conducted 34 Antarctic expeditions and eight Arctic explorations. The government published a white paper, China"s Antarctic Activities, in May and another, China"s Arctic Policy, in January.

According to guidelines from the State Council, which aims to boost the transfer of defense technologies to civilian sectors, the government supports research and development of advanced ships for polar scientific and resource survey operations.

zhaolei@chinadaily.com.cn