US designed hot-water drill reaches subglacial lake

29 January 2013
By Edward Gent
Mobile version
Share |
ISO ski kits were used to transport the drill modules across the Ross Ice Shelf by tractor (Credit: Frank Rack)

ISO ski kits were used to transport the drill modules across the Ross Ice Shelf by tractor (Credit: Frank Rack)

A cutting-edge hot-water drill designed by US engineers has broken through 800-metres of ice above a subglacial Antarctic lake.

Following more than a decade of planning and three and a half years of project preparation the team successfully drilled through the ice sheet above Lake Whillans, at the Southeastern edge of the continent, near the Ross Sea.

The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) team used a powerful jet of pressurized hot water to melt a hole in the ice, reaching the lake yesterday.

Dr. Frank Rack, from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, led the team that designed and operated the drill, the construction of which was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

He said: “At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we are very happy to have accomplished this milestone after spending the past 20 months building the WISSARD hot water drill system and having it traverse over 600 miles to the drilling location on the Whillans Ice Stream. Everyone involved in the project has done a great job.”

They are only the second team to achieve the feat after a British Antarctic Survey mission to drill through two miles of ice to reach Antarctica’s Lake Ellsworth ended in failure last month. The first country to do so was Russia, whose scientists drilled to Lake Vostok last February.

Scientists hope data collected from the drilling will give them insights into subglacial microbial life, climate history and contemporary ice sheet dynamics.

The engineering team were given the task of designing and producing a modular system able to travel over ice and made largely from commercial off the shelf components to make replacements easier – no mean task considering the hostile environment it operates in.

Contamination of the lake’s pristine environment with microbes from above created an extra challenge, a problem countered by feeding the drilling hose through a collar of ultraviolet lamps to kill 99.9% of all microorganisms.

The system consists of a melt tank with a recirculating glycol loop carrying waste heat from generators to melt snow connected to a 3,700 gallon capacity water supply tank

A water decontamination and filtration unit purifies the water as it passes through the system before it is heated to 90°C and pressurized to 2000 psi by six heater-pump units.

A hose reel unit is then used to feed the main and return drill hoses down into the ice, with the entire operation orchestrated from a separate command and control module.

Dr Rack said: “We designed and built the WISSARD hot water drill as a containerized system to protect it from the elements, but it still had to be integrated with the work decks and science lab infrastructure and traversed over the ice shelf to reach the drill site.

“All the pieces of the system didn't come together until the testing phase in Antarctica in December. We were constantly racing the clock to get everything pulled together and shipped, assembled, and tested in time to traverse out to the site to accomplish the drilling.”

The team were able to draw on equipment and experience gained from the IceCube neutrino observatory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica which was created using a hot-water drill.

Mr Rack said: “We benefited significantly by having access to some of the equipment and modules from the IceCube Project, especially the two 225 kW generators and the power distribution module.

“We also hired key personnel from the IceCube Project who played significant roles in designing the WISSARD drill and operating it in the field. Their experience helped us to build a system that worked well and allowed the drillers to do what they needed to do the first time it was used.”

With the bore hole completed the engineers will now handover to the science team but Dr Rack hopes the drill will be back in action soon.

He said: “We are hoping to go back to Subglacial Lake Whillans next season to drill at a number of sites to complete the original science plan for this project. There are proposals being submitted to use the drill at other locations, such as the grounding line of the Ross Ice Shelf to explore that subglacial environment.”

Latest Issue

E&T cover image 1607

"As the dust settles after the referendum result, we consider what happens next. We also look forward to an international summer of sport."

E&T jobs

  • Control System Engineer

    United Utilities
    • Lancaster, Lancashire
    • Up to £33415 + Comprehensive Benefits

    Provide ICA maintenance and engineering support to the Water & Wastewater Production

    • Recruiter: United Utilities

    Apply for this job

  • Signal Processing Engineer

    B&W Group
    • Steyning, West Sussex
    • Competitive Salary

    We are looking for a Signal Processing Engineer to support the R&D process on active loudspeaker products.

    • Recruiter: B&W Group

    Apply for this job

  • Principal Mechanical & Electrical Engineer

    De Montfort University
    • Leicestershire
    • Grade G: £36,672 - £46,414 per annum

    Join the Projects Team to develop and manage medium to large projects on the university estate.

    • Recruiter: De Montfort University

    Apply for this job

  • Advanced Commissioning Engineer

    National Grid
    • Nottinghamshire, Nottingham, England
    • £46000 - £57000 per year

    National Grid is at the heart of energy in the UK. The electricity we provide gets the nation to work, powers schools and lights everyone's way home. Our energy network connects the nation, so it's essential that it's continually evolving, advancing and i

    • Recruiter: National Grid

    Apply for this job

  • Electrical Design Engineer

    Oxford Instruments
    • Yatton, Bristol
    • Competitive salary plus excellent benefits

    We are looking for an electrical designer to join our engineering design team.

    • Recruiter: Oxford Instruments

    Apply for this job

  • Skilled Electrical Fitter

    • Bolton
    • Competitive Salary & Benefits

    What?s the opportunity?   The Electrical Fitter will carry out manufacturing and test tasks within the electrical department in accordance with product certification procedures, defined workmanship  ...

    • Recruiter: MBDA

    Apply for this job

  • Electrical Manufacturing Technician

    • Stevenage
    • Competitive Salary & Benefits

    What?s the opportunity?   As a qualified craftsman with experience in electrical manufacturing, the Manufacturing Technician will report to a Team Leader, receiving day to day ...

    • Recruiter: MBDA

    Apply for this job

  • Consultant Engineer (Electrical Power)

    BAE Systems
    • Cumbria, Barrow-In-Furness, England
    • Negotiable

    Consultant Engineer (Electrical Power) Would you like to play a key role in providing technical direction to the design of power systems on the Successor class submarines, which will replace the current Trident-equipped Vanguard class, currently in servic

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • Supply Restoration Team Manager (HV/SAP)

    • Oxford, Oxfordshire
    • Salary: £37,588 to £49,645 + Car (SSE8) Depending on skills and experience

    SSE is looking to recruit a Supply Restoration Team Manager to join our existing team in Oxford.

    • Recruiter: SSE

    Apply for this job

  • Electrical Technical Lead - Global Operations, Engineering & Laboratory

    Pfizer Ltd
    • Kent

    An exciting opportunity has arisen to join a dynamic team of professional engineers, supporting the development of novel drugs.

    • Recruiter: Pfizer Ltd

    Apply for this job

More jobs ▶


Choose the way you would like to access the latest news and developments in your field.

Subscribe to E&T