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Power Technology

How Engineers Are Building a Power Station At the South Pole 108

KentuckyFC writes "One of the more ambitious projects at the South Pole is the Askaryan Radio Array, a set of radio antennas under the ice that will listen for the tell tale signals of high energy neutrinos passing by. This array will eventually be over a thousand times bigger than the current largest neutrino detector: Icecube, which monitors a cubic kilometer of ice next door to the planned new observatory. But there's a problem. How do you supply 24/7 power to dozens of detectors spread over such a vast area in the middle of the Antarctic? The answer is renewable energy power stations that exploit the sun during the summer and the wind all year round. The first of these stations is now up and running at the South Pole and producing power. It is also helping to uncover and iron out the various problems that these stations are likely to encounter. For example; where to put the batteries needed to supply continuous power when all else fails. The team's current approach is to bury the battery to protect it from temperature extremes. That works well but makes maintenance so difficult that scaling this approach to dozens of power stations doesn't seem feasible. That's a problem for the future but for the moment, green power has finally come to the white continent."
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How Engineers Are Building a Power Station At the South Pole

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Is obviously nuclear power.
    • Re:The answer? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2014 @06:00PM (#46450133)

      Is obviously nuclear power.

      Actually, it has already been done. There was a nuclear power plant [] at McMurdo Station Antarctica from 1962-1972. It was shut down as it proved to be not cost effective, at least with the then current technology. Perhaps today, the economics have changed.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Nuclear power using thermoelectric devices should reach nearly 50% efficiency there.

        This is the obvious solution.

      • The Russians are building floating nuclear power stations [] to be deployed to the Arctic.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 10, 2014 @08:06PM (#46451035)

        When you're running neutrino detectors, having operating fission reactors is a major source of noise.
        Look at Japan, where the shutdown after Fukushima improved neutrino detection:

        "A window on the deep Earth opened unexpectedly in 2011, when Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down after the Fukushima disaster. Before the closure, an underground particle detector called KamLAND based in Kamioka, Japan, was monitoring a torrent of neutrinos streaming from dozens of nearby nuclear reactors, seeking clues to the nature of these hard-to-catch subatomic particles. After those plants fell silent, KamLAND scientists could see more clearly a signal that had largely been obscured: a faint trickle of neutrinos produced inside the planet."

      • Re:The answer? (Score:5, Informative)

        by forand ( 530402 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:02PM (#46451743) Homepage
        One cannot put a nuclear reactor on Antarctica at this point by international treaty: you can neither store nor dispose of waste there and taking it offsite costs too much. []
        • by Toad-san ( 64810 )

          An RTG wouldn't produce any waste, being completely self-contained. The Soviets used them for years to power lighthouses and other remote sites, as did the USAF.


          The objection might be price, since I have no idea how much a 100W or 200W RTG would cost. But you'd save all the manpower costs and risks of having to build something, they're quite tough and immune to most meteorological conditions, and easily replaced at the end of their life cycles (10 years in the case of the

  • From shoggoths?

  • Why not microwave transmission? Line of sight should be relatively easy to deal with over there. Not a lot of buildings in the way.

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      You still need to get pwoer to the station that's send the microwave energy.
      Plus ther ewould be more losses.

      Or did you mean from space? In that case:

      • Right, so you have one power station that distributes power over a wide range.
        Kind of like how most of the rest of the world does it.
        Instead of laying cables that drop to locations all over the place, you just erect endpoint receivers. They don't even have to be that tall because they're nothing else out there.

        Seems a lot better than having many smaller power generation installations (at each endpoint).

        • Re:Microwaves? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @06:57PM (#46450587)

          >Kind of like how most of the rest of the world does it.

          Sorry, but no. There's a world of difference between power lines and microwaves - as best I can tell microwave power transmission is currently at the proof of concept stage - "In 2008 a long range transmission experiment successfully transmitted 20 watts 92 miles (148 km) from a mountain on Maui to the main island of Hawaii." Wikipedia []

          There's also a reason you usually only hear serious proposals in relation to space-based power generation - that pesky old inverse-square law means that the power density diffuses in two dimensions - if you need an antenna a mile wide to catch the bulk of the energy, but it's only 1/10th of a mile tall, then you're throwing away 9/10 of the energy. Alternately if you can manage a tight enough focus to receive megawatts of power with a small antenna array, then everything else that happens to get in the way will likely be cooked alive. When the transmitter is in space that's much less of an issue - large flat antennas covering many acres are a much easier engineering challenge than towering monstrosities, allowing relatively diffuse power densities. Also there's essentially zero overshoot - any energy not captured by your antennas will hit the ground beneath it - absorbed or reflected it's not much of an issue for the guy down the street, though it might be exciting having your antarctic power station melting it's way into the glacier...

          • by dbIII ( 701233 )
            Late last year the room temperature MASER was developed - the thing that all those wireless power freaks that don't understand about losses have been pretending existed for years. It may be a game changer, but some of the problems you mention above are still going to hold.
          • Microwave transmission has been proposed for many years, ever since magnetrons were invented, but never gets past the proof of concept stage, if it even gets past the back of the envelope calculation stage. The inefficiencies are too high.

            Disclaimer: I'm a high power microwave transmitter engineer.

        • How big do you want to make that 'end point receiver'?

          Microwave beams spread out, just like any other 'light beam' ... the energy loss by spreading goes with the square of the distance.

          1km away you likely have lost 90% already, microwaves are certainly the worst thinkable form of energy transfer in a point to point manner.

    • Ummm... You want to build towers out in the middle of nowhere tens and hundreds of miles away and use microwaves to send usable amounts of power between them?

      Obviously not going to work. Full Stop.

      • Ummm... You want to build towers out in the middle of nowhere tens and hundreds of miles away and use microwaves to send usable amounts of power between them?

        Obviously not going to work. Full Stop.

        The towers don't have to be that tall. There's not much blocking LoS.
        They're currently building and maintaining power generation sites at each endpoint. There's no need to if they use microwaves.

        • Communications doesn't seem to be the problem, power distribution over long distances was the problem.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          You have a problem admitting you're wrong.

        • They need to be tall enough to not cook any passers by.
        • by dbIII ( 701233 )

          The towers don't have to be that tall. There's not much blocking LoS

          I hearby withdraw my earlier comments that flat-earther idiots never existed.

        • One thing to keep in mind is that these towers would be set in ice that is moving so they would have to realigned regularly. The ice at the South Pole is moving about 10 meters per year toward the Weddell Sea.

          • They want to cover about 6km^2, so they might be able to find one chunk of ice that is all moving in one piece.
      • That is exactly what most space-based solar power proposals do, though the hundreds to tens of thousands (for geostationary) of miles away is up instead of across, which simplifies the receiving antenna a fair bit (flat on the ground, with no worry of power overshoot). You can't beam power in a non-diffusing column, but with a large enough transmitter you can focus it to a fairly tight point at any distance you like, at least theoretically.

        We don't have the technology to do such a thing *today* though, we'

        • The opposite is true, ofc we have the technology to do that!
          What we not have is the will (and money / and launch capacity) to build up such a space station to beam down the power.

          • Not really - as best I can tell microwave power beaming is very much in the proof of concept phase - they managed to beam 20 watts 90 miles recently. Still just a *little* ways to go to get to beaming gigawatts hundreds to tens of thousands of miles. 22,000 miles if we want the targeting system to be mostly static instead of trying to focus on a series of receiving stations while it zooms overhead.

            • It does not matter what experiment you refer to.
              It is super simple to transmit energy via microwaves, the aiming, focusing and reconverting into electricity without to much loss is the concern.
              Beaming down from orbit would likely only make sense from GEO or beyond, there is not much to track then.
              You have sender of a few dozen meters diameter and beam on an area of a few km diameter.

              • By that logic fusion power is easy, we've already made plenty of devices that employ it. It's only the controlled release of energy and the conversion to electricity that's hard.

                Power transmission generally refers to the complete end-to-end system - i.e. transmission hasn't meaningfully occurred until you can plug in an appliance at the destination. I agree that near-GEO orbits are the way to go for ease of targetting, but that increases the transmission range by two orders of magnitude. If we've managed

                • Sigh ...
                  The farer away, thea easyer!
                  LEO is hard, GEO is simple.

                  The efficiency problem can not be solved, it is like beaming light on a solar cell, exactly the same problem.

                  If the beam spreads wider than the antenna is, then everything that is not hitting, is lost. And even if all would hit, the antenna/solar cell won't convet 100%.

                  This is the only problem, everything else: creating the beam, transmitting it, receiving it, transforming it back are simple tasks.
                  I agree that near-GEO orbits are the way to go f

    • But there are mountains. Lots of them.
    • Microwave power spreads out too much. It would be like trying to read a magazine by flashlight, when your friend was holding the flashlight across the street!
      Plus, I don't think the scientists there would like to be irradiated by highpower microwaves, like a sandwich in the Microwave oven.

    • It's definatly not the first : the belgian 'princess elisabeth station' has some wind turbines and an array of solar cells, powering the station (also for the heating - of which it does not much need - it is properly insulated). http://www.antarcticstation.or... []

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The goal is 95%. My bets are 30% - 70% diesel powered.

    Ok - I looked at the article. I now think 80% plus will be diesel. The whole thing looks like about 5kW at most. They have a few toys which will fail in the dead of night (180*24 hours of straight 'night' at the pole), and no one is going to climb the thing to fix it.
    "Neither is it clear from this paper that the stations have been able to provide their design goal of 120W of continuous power for 95 per cent of the time."

    So has green power come to antarti

  • They want to know how to generate power at a place that gets lots of sun half the year and has a steady wind?
    And they chose solar and wind? wow..shocking.
    Stop asking questions that are answered in the in article as a headline.

    • I don't understand.

      How does solar help at all if power demand peaks in the winter and a 6 monthx0.12MW battery would be 'fairly large' to say the least.

      How does wind help if the turbine - on which your life depends - is located up a tower at -60C with a 60 km/hr wind?

      • >How does wind help if the turbine - on which your life depends - is located up a tower at -60C with a 60 km/hr wind?

        Umm... I'm guessing it generates power, you know, like it was designed to do? A bitch if it breaks down, but then that's why you have multiple turbines and really warm clothes for the repair.

        The solar though, I can only assume the wind tends to die down in the summer, and solar can take up the slack.

        • Its not merely 'a bitch' if it breaks down its freezing in the dark with no planes able to land due to a storm. IOW without diesel you die.

          • And what happens if your diesel generator breaks down? Same thing - you die. That's why you keep redundant generators and backup parts around to be able to fix things. And sure, a backup diesel generator is probably a good thing. But have you looked at the price of diesel at the South pole? Shipping costs are a bitch, especially during the long, dark, often-stormy night.

            • You can't fix a field of broken turbines 20m up in the air at -60C. The link I found shows the real way power is made - the most reliable method they have - which is a fuel station with multiple redundant generators in a shirtsleeve environment. The maintenance of a sea bound wind turbine is double or triple that of land ones. how much at lat -90?

              • Why would you have a field of broken turbines? The point of having a field is so that some of them can break without problems. And looking at the photo in the article it seems quite possible the whole tower could be laid down for servicing. And what does a sea-bound wind turbine have to do with anything? It's constantly subjected to corrosive saltwater and swaying of the base. Meanwhile the south pole is one of the drier deserts on the planet - humidity is near zero, and precipitation is miniscule - it

      • The temperature is irrelevant (except perhaps for oils to grease the ball bearings, so I assume they use bearings that don't need grease).
        Wind speed of 60km/h is nothing.
        Modern commercial wind mills shut down beyond 120km/h
        Also there are special vertical windmills with vertical blades around a vertical axis ... don't know the english term for those. They are very resistant to high wind speeds.

        • The temperature is irrelevant ...

          Temperature has a very large effect on the storage capacity of the batteries they use to store the generated power until needed. Currently (hah!) they bury the batteries to protect them from 'temperature extremes'. As shown in this PDF [], the capacity of a gel cell drops off quickly once you hit about 0C. At -20C you've lost 50% of your capacity.

          Too bad they chose a gel battery instead of an AGM one - according to this PDF [], the AGM has superior low temp performance, although t

          • My parent talked about wind turbines, not about batteries.
            I would try to run the stuff without batteries, but perhaps the conversion to a stable voltage would than be difficult.
            What about insulation and heating for the battery? Would a battery that is constantly loaded and depleeted under good insulation have rather a heat problem than a cold problem?

            • Page 24 of their paper [] shows an even worse capacity vs temp curve that they arrived at experimentally. They determined that they'd have to provide battery heaters to maintain sufficient battery capacity for their needs.

        • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

          The temperature is irrelevant (except perhaps for oils to grease the ball bearings, so I assume they use bearings that don't need grease).

          One of the interesting things is how things interact. If the wind dies down during the summer and picks up during the winter, the motion of the turbines itself generates friction, even with bearings. Depending on how things are, such friction may be enough to keep the grease in a usable temperature range so it's kept at more or less the same temperature year round.

  • Cooling will certainly not be a problem and the geological activity is minimal (if at all present), so earthquakes and tsunamis are out of the question.

    • Cooling will certainly not be a problem and the geological activity is minimal (if at all present), so earthquakes and tsunamis are out of the question.

      Nuclear power is frightening, since the U.S. used it to bomb Japan in 1945, and since nobody seems to know what a becquerel is, or they'd quit using it instead of roentgens. Of course becquerels are more fun, because it makes the absolute number 3.7^10 larger than if it were expressed in curies (also not a unit of radiation exposure).

      Whee! []

    • Hehe...

      You DO realize that the south pole station is built on ICE right? It's about 9,000 feet to bedrock there and the whole station moves about 10M/year (north of course.)

    • Re:Why not nukes? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Monday March 10, 2014 @06:56PM (#46450581)
      The overhead associated with operating a commercial nuclear power plant (maintenance, safety requirements, fuel transport and storage, etc) means they don't become economically viable until you're servicing a population of about a half million. That's what Honolulu doesn't have a nuclear plant even though it'd be almost ideal for their remote location. Currently they get most of their electricity from burning fuel oil, and consequently have the highest electricity prices in the U.S. - about $0.30/kWh vs the national average of $0.12/kWh. Cost on the islands other than Oahu is even higher (about $0.45/kWh) because they have less access to oil and have to rely more on renewables.

      With a population of just under 400,000, you couldn't run a small commercial reactor full-power 24/7 as they like to be run. You'd have to ramp it up and down throughout the day, which greatly increases operational costs. In the rest of the country, nuclear provides 24/7 baseline power. Coal plants can ramp up/down more quickly, but it still takes a while so they also provide baseline power. Fluctuations in power use through the day are handled by oil and gas plants (which can ramp up/down almost instantly) and hydro (which can ramp up/down instantly).

      A RTG (generates heat through nuclear decay, not an induced nuclear reaction) could work. The Soviets used to power many of their remote lighthouses with them. But the wind in Antarctica is very strong and very consistent, and would seem to be the obvious go-to energy source given the scale and remote location (minimal maintenance crew).
      • Load following with a nuclear plant isn't difficult if you can easily control the moderator. This can be controlled by computer. In designs with large negative temperature coefficients (such as LFTR) the reaction speed can be controlled by the rate heat is removed from the reactor, making load following is as simple as controlling the speed of a pump in a coolant loop. Most (all?) current commercial reactors are not designed to habitually operate this way.

        Commercial reactors are usually run full power for c

        • Nuclear reactors can only follow load 'to a certain degree'.
          Read about neutron poisoning or Xenon poisoning.
          Load following with 'one single' reactor e.g is economical impossible.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      Actually cooling is a big problem since you can't pump ice. Nuclear at scale is relatively easy with vast amounts of liquid water and a lot harder without.
      In a place like the south pole you can expect modes of failure that leave you with no liquid water so you'd have to design the device to cope with that in some way or not involve liquid water at all.
    • I think by treaty Antarctica is a nuclear free area.

  • TFA says "one problem is the continuity of power. The wind speed at the pole averages between 4 and 8 metres per second, depending on the height above the ground. That’s just enough to turn the blades on the wind turbines but it also raises the prospect of periods when the wind is too weak to generate power."

    Sounds like a good place to employ a reliable, load-following small modular reactor [].

    • Except that you don't need anything load following in that case where the load is more or less constant.

      • by GPS Pilot ( 3683 )

        If the load is constant, that's a really bad place to build a power station that relies on an inconstant wind, or on Antarctic sunshine (which is very scarce during the winter, when the sun never gets above the horizon).

        • Obviously you only need so much wind power that the minimum of wind is above your constant load.
          And after all: I guess no one really cares if a scientific detector can not work for a few days because of lack of power.
          Finally: The likelihood that such a huge area has not enough wind is close to zero.

  • Nuclear decay is how things were done before wind turbines and solar panels. []

    Personally, I'd love to see Stirling radioisotope generators [] put into real world use.

  • They made a movie about this. Low budget but well made: []
  • Gotta power the 2nd Gate somehow... :)
  • Solar panels are more efficient at lower temperatures, due to minor atomic "agitation" in silicon, so it may compensate the minor sun intensity.
  • All power (whether from green sources or not) will eventually be transformed into heat, increasing the temperature of the Arctic.
    This could be a problem on the long term.

  • The Belgian South Pole station has been running on wind and solar power for 5 years now ... see http://www.antarcticstation.or... [] But it's nice to see others are following.
  • Already been done. []

All this wheeling and dealing around, why, it isn't for money, it's for fun. Money's just the way we keep score. -- Henry Tyroon