Power Plant

Hello! This week I’ll be your host, my name is Max!

With the station snow sublimating, the sun well above the horizon, and tropical -40 temps becoming a not so uncommon thing, I thought now would be an okay time to write a blog about our South Pole Power Plant. Whew! You know, wouldn’t want to write this in the dead of winter and jinx anything! 

Our Power plant is the heart of an intricate system of electricity, glycol, and waste heat that keeps our home here from turning into a multi million dollar ice cube. 🙂 In the Power Plant, or the “Salt Mines” as some affectionately call it, there lives three Caterpillar Generator sets, and one smaller generator called a peaker. These are simply put giant V12 CAT engines, that turn their cranking force into electricity, which in turn runs all the lights in the station, powers our satellite communication, cooks our food, runs our telescopes, charges our iPhones, and provides power to this MacBook I’m currently typing on. That peaker I mentioned kicks on when the station demands more electricity than one gen set can pump out, so it automatically turns on and picks up the slack.

But electricity alone doesn’t heat the station, here’s where it gets cool (hot?) and much more intricate. 

While one of these massive V12 gen sets is humming away, it is getting really, really hot. So what to do with that waste heat? Great idea! Use it! Basically the whole station is a GIANT radiator for the generators when it comes down to it. Here’s how it all works. Large holding tanks of ethylene glycol sit in the generator room, they are called “expansion tanks” and glycol passes through them, into the engines cooling system getting extremely hot, then pumped into pipes and up into the station. Ethylene glycol is what you might find in your cars radiator, its just vessel for heat. That waste heat then travels through the entire elevated station passing through many different glycol based heating units, controlling the temperatures in all areas of the station, staving off the brutal environment outside. As all this happens it is loosing its heat and it’s temperature plummets, and by the time it reaches the Power Plant again it is cool enough to make the trip again! We actually have too much waste heat in the end, and our Facilities Engineer is usually dumping a fair amount of heat out of the station to cool it down enough. 

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Unfortunately, this whole system relies on engines, and engines have failures, just a fact of life. We’ve had our fair share of power outages due to mechanical failures this winter, and they are always a point of trepidation. Science grantees quickly note the exact time of the outage, as most projects are directly affected. Our telescope scientists anxiously watch their screens, as their UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) can only keep the telescopes operational for 2 minutes without station power! After that, lights out. And multi million dollar telescopes begin warming up. Yes, even at -100F our telescopes would be far too hot to function, and therefor a LOT of electricity is dedicated to running liquid helium compressors “Fridges” that cool the telescopes sensors to a matter of 2 or 3 KELVIN. Yes that cold. But when they go down, the projects are in crunch mode to restore power and begin cooling their sensor down ASAP. 

Other than those moments, things down here are hunky dory in the bigger picture, and you wouldn’t know you were in a station relying on an engine for all your power unless you go down to the Power Plant, or look outside I guess… 🙂 Also don’t plan on using one of those plug in digital clocks down here. They actually rely on the current to keep time, and our generators current runs just a little fast and so will your clock after a week! 

Cheers, and can’t wait to see you all very soon! 

*Max did not mention that we also have a smaller emergency power plant if the power plant fails completely and we do not have parts or people to fix it. That power plant is located in the station and is tested fairly often. If it was needed we would have to shut down the green house and sauna since the generators are not as big, but it would get us through the winter or until help could arrive.

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3 thoughts on “Power Plant

  1. Lots more I learnt today, huge generators, is the #1 worry a fire? I guess you have fire drills every so often. Is the power plant in the same huge building as living, kitchen, storage and other facilities? And do you all have a stand-by emergency kit in case of fire or freeze?

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    • The power plant has a very fancy emergency CO2 suppression so if there is a fire, the room will immediately discharge to stop a fire. We do also have a fire team that is trained and ready with SCBA gear in case of a fire. The Power plant is actually in the arch right next to the food arch where I work. There is a milvan full of emergency cold weather gear out on the berms so we would have [frozen] clothes if we were completely out of the station. But, there are other warm building we could go to that are not attached to the station.

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