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Wind Turbines
Photo Credit: National Science Foundation
Wind turbines on Black Island, near McMurdo Station, provide an alternative means of power. Such equipment may be installed near McMurdo in the next few years to offset rising fuel costs.

More power

Blaisdell considers alternative forms of power for the USAP, including wind turbines at McMurdo Station

Power is always a pressing concern in Antarctica, where the loss of electricity would prove a considerable hardship. But in addition to simply providing power, there is a desire to do so in a more environmentally friendly manner.

Part of Blaisdell’s reasoning for scouting out sites for wind turbines at McMurdo Station is to temper the reports of the wind power experts who have examined the area.

“The folks who are used to doing wind turbine installations in the rest of the world look at our terrain here and essentially decide that there’s almost nowhere here that’s constructible, from their viewpoint, because they’re used to sites that are much more accessible or flat,” he said. “We aren’t flat here.”

He said he wanted to get a look at the areas that were reported as having a good wind regime and try to determine, “from what we know about construction down here,” if erecting towers there may be possible.

Something else that must be considered is placing the turbines where they do not interfere with any scientific research or communications.

“And for that matter,” he said, “even if it takes a huge amount of additional effort to construct them ... that’s a fair trade-off because, since I view these as a long-term thing, eventually we will get the return on our investment. It may take a little longer, but it will be because we chose to do that instead of disrupting something else.”

Another energy issue on Blaisdell’s wish list is solar power at the South Pole.

While the sun shines only half of the year at Pole, that’s also the time that requires more electricity.

“I’m re-looking at whether or not that’s a good thing to do, whether it’s worth the construction effort on our part, to have people there putting this up,” he said. “I think it is, and I think that maybe that’s fairly ideal for something like the summer camp,” a collection of housing and offices used only that part of the year.

He said, though, that solar can only contribute small portions of the power that is needed.

Another possible contributor of power at the South Pole is a thermal siphon. Such a system is driven by differences in temperatures. Blaisdell said that 10 meters underneath the ice is about 40 degrees colder than ground level in the summer and about 40 degrees warmer in the winter.

That difference in temperatures can drive a turbine to produce power during the temperature extremes. It would not function during the periods that the above-ground temperatures are about the same as underground.

“These accumulate small amounts of energy,” Blaisdell said, “but, especially if they’re essentially free, consistently producing, they may be the kinds of things we want to start investigating.”

Icy profile

Something he is already investigating and which, he said, “... ultimately, I believe we need to have,” is an electromagnetic sea ice profiler.

“Right now, when we measure ice thickness, we do it the good, old-fashioned way, with a drill,” he said. Sea ice measurements are important for determining whether it is thick enough and strong enough to support people or vehicles. While the drill gives an accurate measurement of the ice, it is only for that one point.

“Say you’re somebody who [plans routes on the sea ice], and you’re looking at a road out to the Penguin Ranch – that’s eight miles or so,” Blaisdell said. “How often are you going to take a sample and what does that sample really mean?”

Even 500 drill samples, he pointed out, would represent less than 1 percent of the terrain.

“Now, is it representative?” he continued. “For the most part, it is. But when you’re, say, approaching a crack, like the Barnes Crack that we know is always there, how many samples do you take on either side before you feel like you could draw a picture of what that is like?”

A similar challenge faces those who select the sea ice runway site that is required to support a fully loaded C-17 as it is landing. Ice depth samples are taken and Blaisdell said they err strongly on the side of caution.

A profiler is a portable device that can be towed behind a person or a snowmobile and it gives a continuous profile of the ice thickness. If it is snow-covered, the instrument shows the depth of snow and then the thickness of ice. With such thorough information, an educated decision can be made about the best location for a runway or a driving route.

Blaisdell said he had hoped to have someone come down this summer to demonstrate the product, but it did not happen, so the idea is still on the table. However, he’s already thinking down the road.

“In fact,” he said, “I even see the day when, instead of sending somebody out on the snowmobile to do this [runway] survey, every third day or so, we have a little robotic vehicle that’s been programmed to traverse the runway in a grid pattern collecting ice thickness data.”

In queue

There are still more ideas awaiting a chance for closer inspection.

One is the possibility of using propane as a fuel for kitchen and dining functions at Palmer Station.

“With regular ship traffic back and forth to the station, it may be considerably cheaper and cleaner to use propane as a fuel for some functions,” Blaisdell said.

Another is a plasma converter “that turns all, and I mean all, waste into a fuel grade gas and a very tiny amount of cinders,” he said.

“The interesting thing about it is that the energy present in the gas that is produced is significantly more than the electricity needed to run the converter,” he said. “While this sounds like the story of the perpetual motion machine, the hidden ‘trick’ is that all trash has an inherent energy content, often considerable.”

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Office of Polar Programs