Thursday, December 15, 2011

The varied fortunes of drilling

Hot water drilling in Antarctica is a tricky business. First, let's start with the obvious, we need to use a liquid that will freeze immediately if exposed to the environment. If the heaters stop, the plumbing freezes and breaks. If you need to walk away from the drill, it needs to have the water all pumped out and replaced with glycol. Glycol is our antifreeze friend in the drill, but not to be spilled and violate the Antarctic Treaty.

This past week has been a roller coaster ride following the drill progress. First things were moving slowly, the heaters weren't behaving themselves, sensors were clogging, and pumps were stalling. Then things began to look up, full speed ahead for drilling a 200m (660ft) full hole like we need for the science instrumentation. Right near 200m on Wednesday, a large leak took place on the hose reel, as that was being dealt with, the drill head froze into the hole and could not be extracted even with silly huge applications of force. The hose was finally cut and the drill head left in the ice for possible extraction at a future date.

Thursday morning and the drill was repaired, and a new drill head installed. In the afternoon the drilling gentlemen went down to 70m (230ft), decided that was deep enough for a long day, and then pumped the hole dry. In the course of pumping they discovered that the pump control console needed to be completely rewired. So it was, and the pumping continued.

Friday morning the drill, all mounted on a series of sleds, was pulled away from the test area and delivered to the ARA1 site where the actual drilling is to be done. When I was last there (updates tomorrow) they were at 110m (360ft) heading downwards at 2/3 m/minute (2ft per minute) with a plan to pump it dry later in the day. The drillers are in 24 hour operation, so that means 12 hours on, outside working hard at -32C (-25F, easy to remember -40C = -40F), on their feet, with some food delivered in the middle of the day. Then the next shift takes over.

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