It's winter in Antarctica, but a temporarily unoccupied British research station is still operating thanks to a new autonomous system. Using technology developed by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) engineers, the Halley Research Station is still partially powered by a micro-turbine as robotic sensors continue to collect scientific data.
The Antarctic isn't exactly a comfy garden spot at the best of times and during the darkness of the continent's winter most stations operate on skeleton crews who don't mind the -57⁰ C (-71⁰ F) temperature and haven't seen The Thing too many times. However, the BAS Halley Research Station is currently unoccupied because the ice shelf that it sits on is unstable and has developed cracks. While it's still manned during the summer, the winter is judged as too dangerous, so it was temporarily evacuated on February 25, 2019.
However, the station is still partially active and continues to collect data on climate, the Antarctic ozone hole, and space weather. The key to this is an innovative autonomous power system that can generate up to 30 kW of power in conditions of below -40⁰ C (-40 F⁰) and can even refuel itself as needed.
Brought online on February 19, the new system is based on a Capstone C30 micro-turbine that is similar in design to a tiny jet engine. It's housed inside a special temperature-controlled module separate from the main body of the station, where it produces about 9 kW of power on a continuous basis.
So far, the system has operated for about 140 days and BAS says that it's worked flawlessly. Because the environment is so severe and there's no one to maintain the micro-turbine system, it had to be engineered like a satellite to require a minimum of attention – and that by remote control from Cambridge, England. By using redundant systems and extensive data collection, the hope is that it will continue to operate until the crew returns in the spring.
In the meantime, the system has refueled itself 81 times and has generated a total of about 30 MW/hr of power as it spins at a rate of 70,000 rpm. But without human personnel to support, it can run on only 10 percent of the normal fuel load, using 6 liters of fuel per hour over the 280-day winter.
During its lonely vigil, the system is running a series of low-power systems that include three weather stations, a troposphere monitor, a VLF space weather station, a mesospheric chemistry experiment, and the GPS network for the entire Brunt Ice Shelf.
"This is the first time a micro-turbine has been used in Antarctica to power instrumentation autonomously," says Thomas Barningham, Project Manager of the Halley Automation Project at BAS. We are delighted that our design is working and we can collect data during the cold and dark winter months. We were confident we had a good design, but Antarctic winter conditions are brutal, so you never know exactly what might happen. So far the systems have operated in temperatures as low as – 43º C (-45º F) and withstood wind speeds of up to 43 knots (50 mph, 80 km/h)."
A virtual tour of the new power module is available here.
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