Boiler trouble leaves Antarctic lake project on ice

Lack of hot water halts attempt to reach unique
life as ‘drill’ nears sub-glacial lake

Science Editor

It’s a familiar problem. You are in a rush to finish jobs in the run-up to Christmas, the weather is freezing cold and then your boiler packs up and cannot be fixed without a critical spare part from the manufacturers.

The added problem with this particular boiler is that it’s stuck on an ice sheet in the middle of West Antarctica and the manufacturers in Bradford are more than 10,000 miles away on the other side of the world.

It is the second time the main boiler has stopped working on a £7m project to drill through two miles of ice to reach a sub-glacial lake. As was the case first time round, the fault appears to lie with the control circuit of the burner unit to the main boiler, scientists said.

Scientists were hoping by now to have penetrated through the ice cap that has covered Lake Ellsworth for up to a million years. They want to send down probes to retrieve samples of water and mud that could be analysed for signs of life, which could have evolved largely in isolation from the rest of the biosphere.

The boiler, manufactured by Ormandy, was supposed to heat 230 litres of water a minute to a temperature of 90C. This was the amount of hot-water needed to “drill” through the ice and create a borehole to Lake Ellsworth, a body of water the size of Windermere that is prevented from freezing by a combination of geothermal energy and the enormous pressure of the ice cap above.

Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge said that drilling is scheduled to restart at the end of the week when the 12-man team of field scientists will receive a new circuit board, or at least some advice on how to run the boiler manually.

“The technical difficulties are not unfamiliar in Antarctica. It’s a very hostile environment and difficult to do things smoothly,” said Professor Martin Siegert of Bristol University, the mission’s principal investigator.

“The good news is that we found the fault relatively early on in our deployment so we have quite a lot of fuel left remaining. If we didn’t have that of course we wouldn’t be able to continue any further….we hope to restart drilling in a few days’ time,” Professor Siegert said.

After the first problem with the boiler last week, a second burner unit successfully fired up for between four and five days, enabling the team to start drilling about 60 metres into the ice before the boiler failed again on Saturday afternoon.

Chris Hill, operations manager for the Ellsworth project, said that an electric element is being used to stop the water in the pipes of the boiler from freezing in the sub-zero temperatures. He said two new circuit boards are being shipped from the UK today. [Wed]

“We have to have a contingency plan in case we need to abandon things but at the moment we still hope to continue the drilling. There’s a realistic possibility that we’ll still get to the lake by the end of 2012,” Mr Hill said.

David Dutch, technical director of Ormandy, said the circuit boards are usually highly reliable but there is a possibility that the two failed units may have both been damaged by the sub-zero temperatures experienced while being stored in the Antarctic over winter.

It would be a huge blow to the scientists if the mission, which has been 15 years in the planning, has to be cancelled because of a boiler problem. Immense effort has gone into the logistics of drilling through 3km of ice with ultra-sterile equipment in order to retrieve microbes that may possibly be unique forms of life.

It would be the first time that scientists have taken pristine samples from one of the hundreds of sub-glacial lakes known to exist in Antarctica. In addition to finding microbial life-forms, the scientists hope that lake sediments will tell them about the past climate of the frozen continent at the end of the world.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
news
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living