Extreme Engineering

Research at the extremes: We find out how the Halley VI station was engineered to enable great science and withstand Antarctic conditions...
28 February 2013
Presented by Ben Valsler, Chris Smith


This week, research at the extremes: We find out how the new Halley VI station was engineered to withstand Antarctic conditions, and how scientists tackle some of the harshest environments on Earth to do groundbreaking research. In the news we discover a battery you can bend, share our thoughts on open access, find out how yeast can aid in the fight against tropical disease and hear how the ozone hole is closing...

In this episode

Honda FCX prototype; the V Flow F.C. Platform and the hydrogen tanks.

01:17 - Extracting Hydrogen from Methanol

Hydrogen cars are limited by the problem of gas storage. Research into efficiently extracting hydrogen from methanol my provide an answer...

Extracting Hydrogen from Methanol

Hydrogen fuel cells, we keep being told, are the future. A clean energy source that has water as its only emission. But we're often told that hydrogen cars are still a few years away, and one of the reasons for that is the problem of hydrogen storage. Hydrogen exists at room temperature and pressure as a gas.

hydrogen tankGases, by their nature, are not very dense and so to hold the amount of hydrogen to fuel a car for a long drive requires squishing the gas down at with a lot of pressure and then carrying a pressurised container in your car. This adds weight, cost, and can make people worry about safety.

Aware if this problem, scientists in Germany and Italy have discovered a way to extract hydrogen gas from methanol at low temperatures and pressures, meaning that instead you could fill your car up with liquid methanol and then convert it to hydrogen as it's needed.

Using methanol to form hydrogen is not new and is a well-known process known as reforming, but until now it has needed high temperatures and pressures, making in less than ideal for use in cars. The approach devised by this group, led by Matthias Beller of the University of Rostock, uses what's called a pincer complex to accelerate the conversion of methanol to formaldehyde then formic acid and finally carbon dioxide, releasing a hydrogen atom with each step. Crucially this happens at temperatures below 100ºC and without adding any pressure.

MK Y6 hexacopter

06:03 - Hexacopter takes Sensors to the Skies

Cambridge University researchers have tested a new way of sensing the atmosphere, using sensors mounted on a remote-controlled hexacopter...

Hexacopter takes Sensors to the Skies
with Andrew Rice & Rod Jones, Cambridge University

Also this week, Cambridge University researchers have tested out a new way of monitoring the atmosphere - using sensors mounted on a battery-powered remote-controlled flying vehicle called a Hexacopter.

It resembles a helicopter, except it's got 6 rotors; we sent Ginny Smith along to see the project team - of computer scientists and chemists - putting it through its paces...

Andrew -   Three, two, one...

Ginny -   And we have take-up.

Andrew -   My name is Andrew Rice.  I'm a lecturer here in the computer lab.  We've just been flying our hexacopter.  Really, this is a small part of some of the things that we do where we basically use sensors and computers to try and measure things about the environment.  So, with the hexacopter, we were measuring CO2 today, but really, the bigger project is just how much information can we collect about the world, and how can we use that in useful ways to better understand what's going on.

Ginny -   Where did the idea for using this hexacopter come from?

Andrew -   One of my students was watching YouTube videos of other universities flying hexacopters and we decided that it will be an interesting thing to experiment where there's a measurement platform.  So, we've done things before, putting sensors onto bicycles or sensors onto vans.  So, this is just another platform for us to attach sensors to.  And really, the interesting questions from the computer science people is about the control.  It's about how to decide where to fly it, what flight path it should take, and what interface you present actually to the scientist who allow them to run their experiments.

Ginny -   And have you had to change it much or did you just buy this MK Y6 hexacopterthing off the shelf and fly it?

Andrew -   We bought it in kit form and my students put it together.  We've just been sort of generally experimenting, getting first of all, some knowledge about flying these things, and then starting to get used to the idea about what sort of interfaces we might need when we actually try to control it.  So, at the moment, it's all pretty much off the shelf and we use a standard sort of helicopter remote control that people use for flying model aircraft.  But over time, what we will be doing is building more sort of abstract interfaces which the computer can use to fly the device.

Rod -   I'm Rod Jones.  I'm a Professor in the Department of Chemistry in Cambridge.  We're involved in this project which is obviously at its very early stages because we've built over a number of years now, a large number of chemical sensors which are really small, really light, low cost.  A lot of the studies we do look at over their quality.  Others look at much harsher environments like volcanoes and I could imagine the kind of technologies that we looked at today, working really quite well in both of those kinds of areas.

Ginny -   At the moment, how do you gather data about the air quality?

Rod -   Well, at the moment, we install networks of sensors really at street level, so we could mount them on posts and something like this.  And what that gives you is a snapshot of what's happening at the surface, but at lots of different sites.  What this is going to allow us to do, hopefully, is to allow us to extend our knowledge in the vertical, the measurements in the vertical so that we can see how the structure that we know is present at street level for example, would extend upwards in altitude.  And once we can do that, we can do a much better job of understanding the exposure of individuals to air pollution and then arguably, and possibly the health effects that are going to accrue as they're exposed to different levels of pollution.

Ginny -   So, the hexacopter we were looking at today is an unmanned vehicle.  So, you fly it with a remote control.  What are the benefits of that compared to say, putting these sensors on a normal airplane or helicopter?

Siberian trapp volcano depictionRod -   Well, there are quite a few benefits.  There's an obvious one which is the cost.  These are an awful lot cheaper than flying a manned aeroplane, but there are more relevant ones in some ways because we can actually take a hexacopter or something like a hexacopter and put it into an environment that we couldn't possibly use a manned aeroplane in either on the grounds of safety in terms of where the aeroplane is flying very close to the ground, or in terms of say, a volcanic eruption where we know that there could be damage caused to the aeroplane by the volcanic plume itself, and we could put something like this through a volcanic plume and there's no personal risk involved.  So, it's actually much safer science in a way.

Ginny -   And is everything going pretty smoothly so far or have you had any problems with flying it?

Andrew -   Well, this is our second one.  The first one we were flying and we've just attached the GPS chip to it and we think there was a software bug which caused it to turn itself upside down and fly to the floor.  And that caused about 1,000 pounds worth of damage to the hexacopter so we had to buy another one basically.  But other than that, there's been no sort of major mishaps.  No one has been injured and we always stick to the flight path.

Chris -   Andrew Rice from Cambridge University's computer lab and before him, Rod Jones from the Department of Chemistry, and they were speaking with Ginny Smith.  And I did actually chat to Andy Rice about that.  He told me that the energy consumption, the batteries, they're supplying 60 amps to keep that thing aloft which is quite some discharge where it buys some half an hour of air time.  But the batteries alone must be a lot of the price I would think. 

Thin, stretchable battery providing power to a red light emitting diode while deformed biaxially to a strain of ~300%

11:15 - ….And S T R E T C H

A team of US scientists have developed a flexible battery than can be stretched to three times its size without damaging its performance.

….And S T R E T C H

Imagine a world where your mobile phone could be wrapped around your wrist, your GPS could be bent around your bike handles, or your tablet rolled up and put in your pocket... this is a vision of a future powered by flexible electronics.

And it's not all that futuristic. Across the world, companies are developing flexible displays capable of being rolled and bent without damage. But until now, there has been a major bottleneck - the lack of an equally-flexible battery to reliably power them.

A team, led by Yonggang Huang at Northwestern University and John Rogers from the University of Illinois have finally filled that gap - they have developed a battery that can not only twist and bend, but can stretch and return to its normal shape, all without damaging its performance. Their rechargeable lithium ion battery is based on a silicone sheet containing one hundred rigid disks of storage material, all electrically connected by long, tightly-packed, S-shaped metal wires which carry the electrical charge between the disks.

The team chose to use lithium, a well-known battery storage material, and focus instead on the design and development of truly deformable interconnects. The stretchiness of this battery stems from these flexible wires; when the device is stretched, the wires undergo 'ordered unravelling'- i.e. they do the 'stretching' - while the battery's precious storage disks remain rigid and undamaged by the process.

The serpentine interconnects have 'self-similar' geometry - each S-shaped wire is made up of many smaller 'S's'. When you begin to stretch the device, you start to unravel the large 'S'. As you continue to stretch it, you begin to unravel the smaller 'S's', until eventually the wires become taut, and the battery cannot stretch further. Even under this extreme stretching, the interconnects are are under such a low mechanical strain that the device can easily return to its original shape.

To demonstrate the performance of their battery, Huang and his team connected it to an LED, stretched by 300%, folded it, twisted it and mounted it onto a human elbow - and the battery continued to operate. The power and voltage outputs of the stretchable battery are comparable to a conventional lithium-ion battery of the same size, with capacity density of ~1.1 mAhcm-2. It can also work for eight to nine hours before being recharged, and this can be done wirelessly in just 6 minutes, thanks to a flexible charging circuit developed by the same team.

Huang's stretchy battery still has to overcome some challenges - its performance has been measured for just 20 charge/discharge cycles, or seven days of operation, so further development will be needed to improve this lifetime, and the materials have yet to be optimised. But with this work, this team have reopened the door to real-world flexible electronic systems that you can bend, twist and stretch as much as you want - with this technology, you can power through.

Open Access logo, designed by PLoS

Open Access - Science For Everyone

It has been a busy week for open access.

So what is open access? The basic idea is that most scientific research is paid for by governments using money from tax payers, so it is only fair that these tax payers - and GPs and charities and small companies and others - should be able to read the results of the research they have paid for, without having to pay for it again - which is what they have to do now.

And it is not only members of the public, GPs and so forth who cannot read these papers without being made to pay, few if any university libraries can afford to subscribe to all the journals that their scientists need to be able to read.

Open access has been around in one from or another - such as green open access and gold open access - for over a decade, but there have been a lot of developments in the UK and the US over the past week or so.

First a quick reminder about green and gold open access: green open access is basically an extension of the current approach to publishing which involves researchers publishing papers in subscription journals and also depositing electronic copies of these papers on the web.

Papers can be deposited either in a repository at the researcher's university (such as Dspace at Cambridge) or in a subject based repository, such as the ArXiV repository used by physicists and astronomers - and some biologists.

One of the issues in green open access is the length of time that scientists are expected to wait after publication before they can deposit their paper - this is the embargo period, and it is typically between about six months and a year.

In Gold open access research papers are made freely available to everyone when they are published: there is a fee to publish (called the Article Processing Charge or APC), so there is no fee for readers.

There have been two important developments in the US: the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act - the FASTR act for short - was introduced before congress on Feb 14. And then last Friday, Feb 22, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a memorandum on "Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research". Both FASTR and the OSTP memorandum would increase the use of open access in the US, although there are differences between the two - and also between US policy and UK policy.

In the UK there have been important developments related to the Finch report, which last year recommended that the UK follow a gold open access policy. This policy is being put into practise by the research councils, and last Friday a report from the House of Lords select committee on science and technology was somewhat critical of the research councils, but not of the Finch policy itself.

And on Monday the funding councils announced that the next Research Excellence Framework - which determines how a large fraction of the UK science budget is divided between universities - will only consider papers that are open access.

These issues have received a lot of coverage in the press - including the New York Times, the Economist and Nature, plus lots of blogs - and there was also an interesting meeting on open access at the Royal Society on Monday that I intended.

Issues raised at the Royal Society included what open access means for learned societies in the UK, especially those that rely on income from journals to support their other activities; on whether the UK's preference for gold open access is out of kilter with what the US and EU are doing; and the need to prevent something called "double dipping". The meeting generated hundreds - maybe thousands - of tweets with the hashtag #OAinthe UK.

Another issue being discussed elsewhere is what open access means for the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Finally, it was announced on Tuesday night that Nature Publishing Group has just bought a majority stake in a new open access publishing company called Frontiers.

Atmosphere of Mars taken from low orbit

19:53 - Mum and Dad might go to Mars

Inspiration Mars, a private company founded by former space tourist Dennis Tito, hopes to send a manned craft to fly past Mars in 2018...

Mum and Dad might go to Mars

Inspiration Mars, a private company founded by former space tourist Dennis Tito, hopes to send a manned craft to fly past Mars, launching as early as 2018.

Atmosphere of Mars taken from low orbitJanuary 2018 is a good time to launch such a mission.  It coincides with the Solar minimum, the period when the Sun is less active and as a result radiation exposure should be lower.  The alignment of the planets at that time also allows for this to be a "free return" mission, where even if something goes wrong, the trajectory will see the craft return to Earth using no fuel.  This alignment also ensures the shortest possible travel time - a return trip in just 501 days.

However, this only gives us 5 years to ensure the technology we need is in place.  To make this attainable, the mission has been designed to be as simple as possible; travel to Mars, fly past around 100 miles from the surface and return home to Earth.  As far as possible, the plan is to use existing technologies, modified to purpose.  No attempt will be made to enter the Martian atmosphere or land on the surface, and the scientific goals are minimised.

But who should man such a mission?  Concerned about the problems of living in a confined space for over 500 days, Inspiration Mars want to send a mature couple, whose relationship has shown it can stand the test of time.

But before you volunteer your parents or grandparents, whoever signs up for this will essentially be acting as a Guinea pig.  It's a longer manned mission than we've ever seen before, and we don't fully understand the risks, including exposure to radiation.

Privately funded missions such as Inspiration Mars are now really taking a hold on the way we interact with space.  Already we've had supplies delivered to the International Space Station by a private company, and tickets are available for space tourism, assuming you can afford the "sky-high" price tag.

Although this isn't a scientific mission, there is a lot we can learn from it, and as the name suggests, they hope the next generation will be inspired to go further.

A snowflake yeast cluster with dead cells labeled red.

24:15 - Yeast Leads the Way for New Drugs

A new screening method for potential drugs to fight parasites has been developed using yeast to help identify effective compounds...

Yeast Leads the Way for New Drugs
with Dr Elizabeth Bilsland, Cambridge University

In tropical climates, parasitic infections such as Malaria are a huge problem and new drugs need to be continually developed to fight the disease.  Now a new screening method for potential drugs has been developed using yeast to help identify effective compounds.

To find out more, we're joined by Dr Elizabeth Bilsland from the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre.

Chris - So first of all, how do you find anti-parasitic drugs in the first A snowflake yeast cluster with dead cells labeled red.place using traditional methods? What's the usual way of doing this?

Elizabeth - Companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis, they cultivate their parasites in the lab and that is possible for the African malaria so Plasmodium falciparum and treat them with loads of different chemicals. So, they have hundreds of thousands of different chemical compounds that they treat these parasites with and see what survives and what doesn't, and then for the best candidate, they test against toxicity in human cells.

Chris - Yes, I was going to say, it doesn't sound like a quick thing to do because then you can try it against the parasite, but then you've got to prove that the drug is toxic for the parasite, but safe for the host, the human?

Elizabeth - For the human, exactly.

Chris - So, you've got two rounds of testing to do for everything?

Elizabeth - Yes, and it is with the parasites that most of the work is being done and still we wonder if it's possible to do the highest throughput with the current methods. But there are several different parasites like Plasmodium vivax that cannot be cultivated in a lab or cannot have a full cycle of cultivation in the lab.

Chris - This is one of the other strains of malaria, isn't it?

Elizabeth - Yes, another strain of malaria that affects South America and Southeast Asia. It's the most widespread form of malaria, and the biology of that parasite is very different from the African malaria. But you just adapt the drugs from the falciparum malaria to the vivax, and hope that it works.

Some yeastChris - And it may not necessarily be the best solution to the problem?

Elizabeth - No. If for example, it does not target the liver stages then there are the recurrent stages of the vivax malaria.

Chris - I see. So, what have your group come up with as an alternative which solves a lot of those problems?

Elizabeth - We engineer strains where we remove genes that are essential for yeast to survive and replace those with genes that are essential for the Plasmodium to survive, or for the parasite, it causes sleeping sickness or chagas disease, or schistosomiasis. And we also did the same, replacing the same gene with a human gene. The idea is that we can grow the yeast strains in a way, grow them in a tube, treat them with the drug and see if the yeast with a parasite gene dies, but not the yeast with a human gene.

Chris - So, you're turning the yeast into a sort of surrogate parasite - so, by putting the parasite genes into the yeast and then testing those drugs on the yeast, if the yeast dies off with the parasite gene, that's good? When it's got the human equivalent, it stays safe, that's good, and it means you can do this much more quickly because you're growing yeast which is easy to grow?

Elizabeth - And from the start of the experiment, we have a direct measure of toxicity. So, we know that it's not having the possible side effects in humans. We know that the drug goes into the living organism, and we know which target is hitting because when you treat the entire parasite, you don't know how the drug is acting at all, so you can't optimise the drug if you don't know what it's hitting.

Chris - Is it working? Have you got some compounds out of this that prove this technique does work?

Elizabeth - Yes, definitely. In the yeast strain, we selected for example, 36 compounds that kill the yeast with the Trypanosoma brucei that's the agent that causes sleeping sickness. So, out of these 36 compounds, we tested them in purified parasites in the lab and we saw that 60% of them actually killed the parasite at 10 micromolar. With the same concentration of drug, if you test it straight in a parasite, you would have about 0.1% of hit rate. So, from 0.1% to 60%, I think that it's quite a good improvement. In the cases of parasites that you can cultivate easily in the lab, maybe that's not so important, but with the case of vivax malaria (that's a South American malaria), if you want to test if the drug is working, you have to be based on the area where that malaria is endemic, extract blood from about 50 patients infected with malaria, purify the parasite, treat that with the drug, and see if it works. 

So, to have 50 sick volunteers for each drug, it would really not be realistic, but if you select 15 candidates in drugs then you can start to consider. And that's the stage that we are at the moment. We have some drugs that are in a state that we're going to take to the lab in Manaus with a collaborator from Brazil.

Chris - Wonderful piece of news, given that there are something like 500 million cases of malaria every year and perhaps as many as a million deaths. And also, coming in the year when we're celebrating 200 years since the birth of Dr. David Livingston who was of course the famous missionary who got malaria himself 27 times, I'm told. That's Elizabeth Bilsland from Cambridge University and she published that work this week in the journal, Open Biology.

Symptoms of Chalara ash dieback. A fungal disease affecting the ash trees of Europe. Picture shows wilting of leaves caused by necrosis of the rachis.

30:27 - Genes Against Ash Dieback - Planet Earth

Eighty million trees in Britain are at risk of dying from ash dieback – a fungal disease that’s gradually spreading across the country...

Genes Against Ash Dieback - Planet Earth
with Richard Buggs, Queen Mary University of London; Jo Clark, Forestry Research Manager;

Eighty million trees in Britain are at risk of dying from ash dieback - a fungal disease that's gradually spreading across the country.

But there is a glimmer of hope, thanks to scientists at Queen Mary, University of London, who are decoding the ash tree's genetic sequence to discover how to produce a tree strain resistant to the disease.

Richard Hollingham spoke with the scientist leading the research, Richard Buggs, and Forestry Research Manager, Jo Clark...

Richard Hollingham - Jo, just set the scene for me here. We're in the middle of a field and surrounded by woodland...

Jo Clark - Well this is Paradise Wood which is the research woodland of the Bluebells woodlandEarth Trust. It was set up about 20 years ago and it is the largest collection of genetic broad leaf trials in the country dedicated to improving the quality of the timber of some of our most important timber trees.

Richard Hollingham - Now to get to the location we're at right now we've walked through some lovely woodland and we've passed a plantation of ash and there's woodland all around us, but where we are right now the trees are really quite small and stubby.

Jo Clark - The reason they're so small is partly an environmental effect - we're in a bit of a frost pocket here, so it's not a great place for planting trees but also all of the trees that we're looking at is especially bred line of ash trees that have been crossed within themselves so the material is much more homozygous and that is an actual impact on the growth, so that's another reason why they look so small.

Richard Hollingham - When I say they look small, they're really just coming up to my waist, that sort of height, but Richard these are of particular interest to you these trees despite their small size.

Richard Buggs - Yes, so for me to sequence a genome it is really important that these are in bred trees because every tree has one genome copy from its mum, one from its dad and they can be quite different and so when I sequence a genome it can be really hard to untangle those two. However in a plant that is the product of a self pollination it has the same mum and dad and so the two genomes are not very different and that will really help me as I sequence a genome to do the assembly of that genome in a way that is efficient and actually gives us really good results.

Richard Hollingham - And at the moment, Jo, there's that alarming statistic of 80 million trees likely to be affected by ash die back - how important are ash trees?

Woodland canopyJo Clark - Well ash is one of our most important trees, it's the third most common tree and the second most widely planted broad leaf tree. It performs a very important part of many valued ecosystems - a lot of British biodiversity is dependent on not so much the ash tree itself but on the structure of a woodland, a broad leaf woodland that is created through different species composition. So ash is very important and it's a very important timber tree. Ash is quite elastic, it's quite good at absorbing impact and it is used quite widely in things like flooring and door frames. Morgan cars are still made from ash trees - it is widely used.

Richard Hollingham - So, Richard, you are starting with the ash trees here, these small ash trees, these young ash trees, what are you actually going to do?

Richard Buggs - I will be collecting a sample here today from a self progeny of ash. I will be taking that back to my lab at Queen Mary University of London and my PhD student, Yasmin Zoren, is going to extract the DNA from the bark of that specimen. We will be sending that DNA sample to Eurofins in Germany and the data they will give back to me is a whole load of short reads from throughout the genome at random covering the genome 155 times over, and we have to put that all together using high performance computers to assemble the genome of ash.

Richard Hollingham - And essentially, what, you will get a list of all the Symptoms of Chalara ash dieback. A fungal disease affecting the ash trees of Europe. Picture shows wilting of leaves caused by necrosis of the rachis.bases in the ash DNA?

Richard Buggs - Exactly. The ash genome is 950 million bases long, so that's just under a third size of the human genome. Sequencing a genome is a bit like taking aerial photos of an unexplored island. Just imagine there is an island in the Pacific that hasn't been explored and all we know is how big it is and we want to know more about it, and so what we might do is send planes over it taking lots and lots of small aerial photos at random and then we have to take those little aerial photos that we have, which in our case are reads of DNA, and put them all together in a big jigsaw puzzle to recreate on the computer the whole genome code of the ash tree.

Richard Hollingham - Okay, you've got your secateurs in your hand and you're going to take a sample now - so you're actually going to chop off a little bit of this tree here.

Richard Buggs - I'm taking a sample here...

Richard Hollingham - There we go! You literally take that back and you've got to do all that work on it.

Richard Buggs - It's the start of a huge programme of research.

Richard Hollingham - So you have the sequence of DNA, how does that help you with looking at which trees are going to be resistant to the disease?

Richard Buggs - The gene spur resistance are not just going to pop out of the genome as soon as we sequence it, we're going to have to actually find them and the way we do that is to look at lots of trees and find ones that are resistant and ones that are susceptible and then genotype them.

Richard Hollingham - When you say genotype, look at the genetics of them and sequence them?

Richard Buggs - Yes. So we won't sequence the whole genome with them but we will look at a subset of the genome using a system of markers like, for example, there is a system called rad markers that look at thousands of points across the genome but not the whole of the genome but enough of it for us to pick out the genes that are associated with resistance or susceptibility to ash die back.

Jo Clark - The underlying genetics is absolutely of paramount importance, whether you're trying to produce robust populations to combat climate change, or in fact a novel disease like Charlara. The genetics is what underpins all our research work to produce productive timber trees for the future.

Richard Hollingham - Richard, how long is this going to take?

Richard Buggs - The sequencing of the genome should take less than a year and we should be releasing a draft assembly of the ash genome very quickly. Technologies have moved on really fast in the last five years and this is now quite a routine thing to do.

Richard Hollingham - And, Jo, how soon do you expect to be able to use this information?

Jo Clark - Well as soon as Richard gives us those individuals that are likely to be resistant we have very good techniques for bulking up material, so ash grafts very, very easily. You can graft it onto a root stock and then you can be producing seeds perhaps in five years time.

Richard Hollingham - So while ash trees are dying you would be hoping to breed resistant ash trees and almost starting to catch up.

Jo Clark - Absolutely. Just because most of the ash trees are dying hopefully we will find one or two individuals. I mean the public can even help here by identifying individuals and letting researchers know and they can do that on the Peach Trees Trust website, because those are the ones that will be resistant and those are the ones that we would like Richard to be screening and saying, yes they actually are resistant and then we can bred from them.

Richard Buggs - This is obviously a huge natural disaster for Britain and for our ash trees but one of the really encouraging things that has come out of it is that it has shown up how much the public cares about woodlands. And also within the scientific community I have seen a huge enthusiasm for lots of scientists to get involved with trying to combat this problem and different people with different research skills are coming together and saying, look here is something that I can bring to the table, let me work on this, and we're all looking to collaborate together to combat this as a scientific community within Britain.

Richard Hollingham - Richard Bugg and Jo Clark, thank you both very much.

BAS project manager, Karl Tuplin, at the south end of the modules

35:27 - Engineering in the Antarctic

The new Antarctic research station, Halley VI, was designed with scientists in mind. But what are the challenges of Antarctic engineering?

Engineering in the Antarctic
with Karl Tuplin, British Antarctic Survey; Peter Ayres, Aecom

Antarctica is one of the most challenging environments on Earth, but despite of this, there's lots of scientific research that needs to take place in Antarctica to help us to understand the world around us.  

We were joined by Karl Tuplin who's the Project Manager for the British Antarctic Survey's Halley VI project and Peter Ayres from Aecom, who were both involved in engineering the project As well as Tamsin Gray from British Antarctic Survey who was able to share her personal experiences of working there. 

Chris - What's actually the vision for Halley VI?  What was needed down in Antarctica? 

Karl - Well, we're going to lose the old station.  The ice shelf's going to carve off, so we're going to lose it, so we need a new one.  Exactly where that carving line was going to be, it's quite difficult to predict.

Chris - So, you're literally going to have your old station float away on an iceberg?

Karl -  We would've done. We've managed to demolish it and cleared it now, but we would've done yes.  Exactly where the carving line is going to be was difficult to predict and during the design of the new station, there are some big chasms behind it, so it's going to make the ice shelf a little bit more stable.  

So, one of the visions for the new one is it had to be relocatable. We had to be able to move it because we don't want to be spending huge sums of money again, building another station in 10, 20 years' time. So, that was one of the visions.  

A couple of the other factors were, we wanted something that was going to be stimulating for scientists to work in. Previous stations were nice, square, boxy, very good engineering point of view, but not necessarily the most stimulating place to live or work. So, we got architects involved to try and produce a better place to live, to work.  

Further, there's a lot of effort needed to survive in the Antarctic, a lot of work because the main aims of science there, we're trying to reduce the amount of effort to survive, to make it easier to live there.

Chris - Were you at the previous station, Tamsin?

Tamsin - Yeah, that's right.

Chris - What's it actually like when people just think, I'll nip off down to Proud Halley VI Project Manager - Karl TuplinAntarctica. What's actually involved in being down there? What's it like?

Tamsin - Day to day life is quite different from back here. So, to get all the water to drink you know just for washing and showering and things, we had to go outside and shovel snow in a big team for about an hour everyday into a hole to melt. Although now with a new station, they've got machines doing a lot of that work for them. So, just every day, you know, you walk to work, sometimes I could fall over 7 times in big snowdrifts because there's a blizzard going on and I could barely see my hand in front of my face. So, there's just all sorts of challenges that you wouldn't really think about with life back here.

Chris - Have you sorted those challenges out, Karl?

Karl - Yes. For instance, on the water side where it used to be, people shovelling snow into what we call a melt tank a long shaft down to a big kettle under the ice. Now, we have modified shipping containers with large tanks in it and heating goes at the bottom and it can open the doors on the lid of the container and just pull those snow in so it makes it a lot easier, a lot simpler, and you can melt a lot more water.

Chris - And then you're spending time doing research, not just shovelling.

Karl - So yes, it's less people required to do this little work so you're spending the money on science rather than on the station's support.

Chris - Peter from Aecom, the engineers behind this project. What's actually involved in building something like this as far away and in those sort exigent extremes that we get in Antarctica?

Peter A. - Well, Halley VI is without a doubt, the most challenging building we have ever been involved in designing. Just starting with the climate in Antarctica which is incredibly cold, it goes to minus 56 degrees centigrade on the site, over 100 mile an hour winds, 106 days of continuous darkness in winter. And so, just building in a cold climate in itself is a very, very challenging thing to do. But Halley was special even by Antarctic's standards. It is the world's first fully relocatable research base and so, we had to design a building that was fleet of foot if you like, that was able to be moved, but also was robust enough to survive the incredibly challenging environment. And I guess the most challenging thing of all in fact was the logistics, the supply chain, how we would bring the materials to Antarctica to build the base.

Chris - It's not just any old materials either, is it, because someone said to me the other day and really made me think, you can't weld metal in Antarctica in the same way as you could knock a few bits of metal together in a warmer place?

Peter A. - Well, there are lots of things you wouldn't want to do in Antarctica because you're constantly working in sub-zero temperatures. So, that means you have to be generally in pretty warm clothes with thick gloves, and things like that. So, even things like bolting, you want bolts that are big enough that you can handle them with gloves and you want components that can be clipped together. But probably, the most overwhelming constraint of all is that because of the short summer season when people can generally work there in construction, you only have about 12 weeks within which you can actually build anything. 

You would immediately think, "Let's pre-fabricate things and just ship them in." But there's another constraint which is that, because the base is built on a floating ice shelf, everything has to be delivered by ship and it has to be towed across very fragile frozen sea ice. And so, that constraint says that you have to limit the size of every component you take to Antarctica. So really, the whole design to some degree was dictated by those two key constraints. On the one hand, you want things to be as big and pre-fabricated as possible. On the other hand, everything has to be small enough to be shipped across the sea ice. And when you put those two constraints together, that's effectively the starting point for how we conceptualize the design.

Chris - So Karl, do you say to Peter, "This is what we want..." and then he says, "This is what I can do." I mean, how does it work?

Karl - No, it's the other way around really. This is Halley VI, so we've built 5 stations before. The Halley VI, what we wanted, just go out to the marketplace and see what the best this marketplace could actually do - the engineers, the architects, the construction teams, and see what they can come up with.  So, what we did, we presented them with the problems because there's a lot to understand and take in all in one go. So, what we actually did was launch a multi-stage design competition and started that competition by showing the teams the problems of the Antarctica and what they had to overcome and then said, "Go away and come up with your ideas of what would you design." We didn't expect those designs to work, but we want to see what ideas are out there to overcome the problems.

There were 6 teams who did that and then we narrowed it down to three of those teams, the one we thought who had the most potential, the designs that had the most potential to stay forward, and we put a BAS team with each one of them, so the BAS team had the Antarctica knowledge and we put a contractor with each team as well. So, you had three teams running and each team, the designers had the design, concepts and they had BAS who had the Antarctic and the logistics knowledge, and you have the contractor who had the build and the procurement knowledge. In that way, we then had three designs in the country, running together to try and come up with the best one.

Chris - And that was you, Peter. So, how did you actually delivered this?  What's the process for getting this new station erected in Antarctica? What did you actually do?

Peter A. - Well, as I said before, one of the key things was to The blue ice covering Lake Fryxell, in the Transantarctic Mountainspre-fabricate as much as possible. When we originally turned up on the ice with a great big Russian chartered icebreaker ship, we had steel frames which form the basis of our modular building. So, the building is, in fact, made up of a series of 8 pod buildings if you like. They're pretty big.  They weigh in excess of 100 tons each. Each of them is based on a steel frame which is pre-fabricated, loaded onto the ship, dropped off on the ice on special skis that are made just for the transit and towed to the site. And from there on, all of the different components are kind of modularised pre-fabricated components that as far as possible, click together to make the base.

The pods are founded on giant hydraulic legs which allow the base to climb mechanically out of the snow every year. They're founded on huge skis which are the same technology of the skis you use on sledges, but much, much bigger so the buildings can be move. And then we bring all of the rooms that form the base are pre-fabricated modular bed rooms and plant rooms, toilets, etc. Those get loaded on top of the steel frames and then we developed a very innovative fibre reinforced plastic composite cladding system which provided the final resistance to the weather which was very well sealed and thermo-insulated enclosure to keep everybody safe and sound inside.

Chris - Which is good to hear and dare I ask price tag?

Peter A. - Are we going to give that price, Karl?

Karl -  Yes. The actual construction contract is just on the 26 million, 25.8, 25.9 million.

Chris - Actually, I thought it was going to be more.

Karl - That's the construction contract and the total project is under 50 million.

Chris - Peter's wage bill?

Karl - I'd use bonus on him. Yeah, just under 50 million is the total price tag.  That's all the logistics and everything to make it happen.

The winter sky above Halley VI station, Antarctica

45:02 - Antarctic Atmospheric Science

Antarctica is part of the world most affected by a changing climate. Atmospheric research there can help us understand global systems...

Antarctic Atmospheric Science
with Tamsin Gray & Jonathan Shanklin, British Antarctic Survey

Antarctica is part of the world most affected by a changing climate. Atmospheric research there can help us understand global systems and we spoke to Tamsin Gray and Jonathan Shanklin, both from the British Antarctic Survey about their work... 

Ben -  Tamsin, how do you have to adapt research to cope with those conditions?

Tamsin - Sometimes it's just really simple challenges like working outside, doing fiddly tasks with your hands. One of the tasks I had to do was go out and measure 10 metal poles in the snow to see how the accumulation of snow varies from year to year and sometimes, I would have to go back in the middle of the winter to warm my hands up in the middle because I could only measure 5 before they'd frozen. I won't tell you about the time when I held the metal tape measure to the pole with my mouth for a second whilst I did something with my hands.

Chris - Ouch! Show us your tongue? Oh it's still there.

Tamsin - It's healed just about. That was about 5 years ago and I think I've learned my lesson.

Ben - So, what actually is your research? What is it you're trying to find out?

Tamsin: - We're researching lots of different aspects of climate change. John and I work on atmospheric science. So, right from the kind of snow and what's happening at the snow air interface, up through the layer where we experience weather and then the ozone layer which I'm sure John will talk about above us, and then the upper atmosphere at the boundary to space, we research space where the Antarctic is actually a great place to study things like the Aurora. So, all aspects of the atmosphere that form the climate and the changes that are taking place that we're trying to understand at the moment.

Ben - We heard earlier about how atmospheric researchers here in Cambridge can deploy a network of sensors they strap to lamp posts which again, is not an option for you. And now, they're developing new technologies on these unmanned aerial vehicles that will allow them just to go up through the air column and measure everything. It can't be that simple for you. How do you actually measure that full column of air?

Tamsin - We've got a whole array of different instruments. We measure the upper atmosphere with big radars, so we often build masts and towers in Antarctica that can transmit strong radio signals up into atmosphere and bounce them off various sets of charge particles, and things that can give us information about what's happening way up in the atmosphere.

It was interesting in hearing what they were saying because one thing that we did one time when I was in Antarctica was fly unmanned aircraft because we wanted to find out what was happening over the frozen sea ice in the winter time when it wasn't safe to go out there as people, it was dark and it was freezing cold. Although we actually had some problems flying things by remote control because we were limited by the thumb freezing time which depended on the temperature we a graph.

Chris - That was pretty painful. Ouch!

Ben - So, do these limitations as well mean that it's very hard for you to collect a full, year-round data set or are you able to leave sensors there and collect data all year without actually having to go out into dangerous conditions?

Tamsin - We do have year-round data about lots of different places in the atmosphere that - I mean, some of it, we collect, we're involved in the collection. A lot of it, we now have automated instruments that are collecting them and they just need scientists and engineers to be able to fix them because nothing in Antarctica works smoothly. There's always problems and challenges, no matter what you do.

Ben - And Jonathan, if we could bring you in here, what sorts of things are you actually finding out?

Jonathan - I think one of the differences of say, the UK and Antarctica is the density of a network. So typically, weather stations in this country might be 50 km apart, maybe a little bit more than that, often, much less 10 km. In the Antarctic, we're lucky if we've got them several hundred kilometres apart.

So, that means that each station is much more valuable in itself in identifying what's going on. And we're looking at things on a variety of timescales. So, we're looking at the climate as it changes over the ice ages, in a really long timescales by looking at the ice itself. On the more historic timescale, we're looking at the slow change of climate in the measured period. Our Halley was first occupied in 1956. So we've got 60 odd years' worth of data from there. 

Intriguingly, the temperature, the mean average temperature at Halley has not changed significantly in that period. And that contrasts with what's going on in the Antarctic Peninsula, the bit that sticks up towards South America which is warmed by 3 degrees at the same time. Now we say, "Why? What's going on?"

The answer is, the ozone hole is what's going on and it's quite fascinating that we're discovering that there are lots of indirect links between the climate and the ozone hole, and the ozone hole and climate. And one of the worries is, that the ozone hole really tells us about how fragile our atmosphere is. It came from virtually nothing, to full blown in a little over a decade when our finding that it's affecting the oceans around Antarctica.

What's happening is that the formation of that ozone hole each spring is changing the wind system lower down in the atmosphere which is then changing the ocean currents because the strength of the wind has changed. And we know at least in one or two places of Antarctica, that's then pushing warm water towards the Antarctica coast and is actually starting to melt from below some of the ice shelves. So it's a fascinating chain that links the two together.

Of course, with the changing climate in the surface due to the increasing amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, although that's warming the surface of the Earth, higher up, it's getting colder. And because the ozone hole forms because of the unique circumstances over Antarctica, we get a long period of really cold temperatures during the Antarctica winter, which allow clouds to form inside the ozone layer itself, and then the sun comes back in the spring, it illuminates those clouds, and on the surface of those clouds, chemical reactions have taken place that converts chlorine and other substances from things like Freons and other halocarbons interactive form. You then get photochemistry which destroys the ozone, creates the ozone hole.

Ben - It's a self-perpetuating problem really once you have an ozone hole in the first place that chemistry then will keep that hole going.

Jonathan - It will. However, one of the things that we globally have done about it is that all the member states of the United Nations have signed up to what's called a Montreal Protocol and this is a tremendously successful treaty. It's working. The amount of those ozone destroying substances in the atmosphere is going down and it's quite clear that they're going down, but they'll be with us or the ozone hole is likely to be with us for maybe another 50 or 60 years, just because these chemicals are so stable.

Chris - Is the hole shrinking though?

Jonathan - Yes, I think it is. It's still quite early days, but it is quite obvious in our averaging data from Halley that we're seeing a recovery. When you look at the lowest level of ozone that's seen each year, it's rather less clear cut. There's definitely a sign that things are improving, but we're within the noise level still. And also, that relies on there being no other external forcings and you could still get the perfect storm as it were where the atmosphere conspires in just the right way to give you exceptionally cold conditions, exceptionally stable atmosphere, combine that with a very big southern hemisphere volcanic eruption that puts extra particles up into the ozone layer and we could get the worst ozone hole ever. But within 5 or 10 years, I think that will be past, we'll have had the worst ever ozone hole and we can clearly say that through combined action, we have cured at least one of the environmental problems that are facing us.

Ben - That's incredibly positive news of course. We have been talking throughout the whole show about how different and special Antarctica actually is. Can we learn lessons from the research that we do down there about the climate systems for the rest of the world?

Jonathan - Yes, because what goes on the poles very clearly influences a much wider region. So, there's quite good evidence that because the ozone hole is changing the wind systems, that's changing rainfall patterns, and potentially affecting Australia. So, that's getting quite a long way north and so, the other side of it is, if we change how the oceans are being heated, then the ocean transport system which brings warm water from the equator, northwards and southwards, if we start tinkering with that pump, then we can have global effects on the climate.

Ben - Fantastic and you know you're talking about somewhere special when you're describing Australia. It's quite a long way north. Thank you ever so much Tamsin Gray and Jonathan Shanklin, both from the British Antarctic Survey.

Dew droplet, about 1mm in diameter, resting on a superhydrophobic leaf surface

Is Earth's total water finite?

Naked Scientist Hannah Critchlow posed this question to Phil Robinson from the Royal Society of Chemistry...

Phil - The simple answer is yes!

The Earth is effectively a closed system and the total amount water it contains is essentially constant. Now, some of that water is stored in humans temporarily while they're alive. So, the more humans there are then the greater the volume of water that will be stored in that reservoir. Now, on average, a human will hold about 40 litres of water and if we take the world's population at around 7 billion, that gives a total volume of about 280 billion litres held in humans which is a lot at almost 1/3 of a cubic kilometre.

Hannah - Oh dear! Well, since the world population is estimated to have increased by 3 billion in the last 50 years and is anticipated to continue to rise, should we all be sensationally stock piling personal supplies of water in preparation for disaster? Fear not! Phil has more on the topic:

Phil - However, the total volume of water that exists on the whole of the Earth, in whatever form - liquid, solid, gas or biological is actually about 1.4 billion cubic kilometres. So the volume represented by people is just a tiny fraction. It's not even a billionth of the total amount of water. In fact, to make it a billionth, we'd have to increase the world's population about 5 times. So, in short, yes, humans are a reservoir for the world water, but the amount of water that that represents is really just a drop in the ocean.

Hannah - So yes, Ian. You are perfectly right. Increasing human populations will decrease the amount of water left on Earth, but not by any significant amount.


Add a comment