Erik Verhagen, PEA station engineer - © IPF

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Life as an Engineer at PEA

Erik Verhagen has already been working as an engineer at PEA for two seasons. He gives us a glimpse into his daily life as station engineer and some of the work he’s involved with this season.

What’s involved in your role as station engineer?

I’m responsible for operating all of the systems of the station: all the electrical systems including the energy management system, the heating and ventilation systems, the building’s automation system, IT, telecoms, and on-site science support. I’m working on everything that’s related to the technical systems of the station except the water treatment. That’s Jacob’s job.

What does on-site science support entail?

When scientists need power for something they’re working on, they come to me and I calculate how much power I can give them. I also set up and operate instruments for many of the science projects around the station at the beginning of the season, and also when the concerned scientists are not here.

Could you tell us about the projects you are working on at the station this year?

There’s been a lot to keep us busy. Replacing the batteries to enhance the energy management system was the most important thing for us to do this season, and we’ve just finished. Karel Moerman and I also looked at the emergency power back-up generator systems, and we were able to fix synchronization problems with the station’s power grid. Now we have a backup system that functions wonderfully.

We’re also rearranging solar panels this season, as well as doing maintenance, repair and fine-tuning of the wind turbines. Before the Mary Arctica got delayed, we had planned to install a new model of wind turbine this year, but there’s no time left to do it this season.

What did replacing the batteries involve?

There was a lot of preparation work to do before we could remove the old batteries. We had to prepare the station to run on generator power only, because the batteries are the heart of the energy management system, and we needed a smooth transition to generator-only operation. Once we did this, we had to uncable all of the old batteries. This alone took most of one day to do. Then we had to take all of the old batteries out and replace them with the new ones.

The batteries are massive lead-acid cells weighing 85 kg each. We have 192 of them, which makes for a total weight of more than 16 tons. We had to carry all of these batteries out of the building and bring the new ones into the building via a flight of stairs. It was a very labour-intensive process. We got a lot of help from the other team members. It’s wasn’t in everyone’s agenda to help out, but they gave a hand anyway. This is why we managed to get the batteries changed in five days; otherwise it would have taken much longer. We had three 12-hour days of particularly intensive labour.

How did you manage to transport 85 kg batteries up a flight of stairs at the station?

We built a ramp on the stairs and used a rope and pulley system. We attached one end of the rope to one of the heaviest people on the team, and simply by walking down the stairs he was able to lift the 85 kg battery up the stairs. We’re very inventive and creative when it comes to solving problems at PEA!

Once we had the new batteries in place, we had to cable them all and check to make sure there weren’t any defective cells. The tricky part was charging the 192 cells to make sure they were all at the exact same voltage – what we call ‘equalization charge’. It’s a dangerous operation, of course, because if you short-circuit a battery or mishandle one, it tends to explode. So we had to evacuate the base for a few hours. But everything worked well.

Why exactly did the batteries have to be replaced?

There were two reasons: First, the activities here at the base are growing, and we needed more capacity. So we bought batteries which have 25% more charge capacity. Second, due to unforeseen overwintering conditions over the past few seasons, the old batteries lost a lot of their capacity and needed to be replaced.

What are you doing with the old batteries? Are they being recycled?

Right now we’re loading them into a container for transport to the coast in the next week or so. They’ll stay there over the winter, and next year when the ship comes to Antarctica, we’ll load them on the ship to be transported to Cape Town. We’ll recycle them either in Cape Town or in Belgium.

There’s a lot of lead in the batteries, and lead is becoming expensive, so we might be able to recoup some money selling the used lead. And recycling materials is always a good gesture for the environment.

I hear you’re installing some new solar panels?

We’ve also brought a different type of solar photovoltaic panel, which we’ll have to wait until next year to install because we won’t have time. This panel also makes use of radiative energy – the light that is reflected form the snow. So this will also result in an increase in energy production when we eventually install them. We have tens of square metres of this kind of panel. It’s destined to eventually replace some of the solar panels that we have here.

We might be able to install a small patch of a few panels. We’d like to at least test a few of them to see their yield and to see if the location where we’re putting them is better suited and more productive. But it won’t be a complete set-up as we initially planned.  It’s not critical to do before winter, because there’s no sun this time of year anyway.

Why are you changing the solar panels?

First, to replace them with more efficient ones. Second, the solar panels on the roof of the garage tend to be snowed over during storms. If you cover a solar panel even slightly is doesn’t produce any energy. We constantly have to shovel snow, which is annoying and time-consuming.

Before coming to work at PEA, had you ever worked on a similar project?

I had spent some time in Antarctica before coming to PEA. I was working on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory project at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which is looking to find cosmic neutrinos. When I’m not working here four months out of the year, I work on designing electronics for data acquisition systems for particle physics research at the Interuniversity Institute for High Energies (ULB-VUB) in Brussels.  Aside from designing instrumentation for the IceCube Project, I also work on designing data acquisition systems for the giant particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland.

I hadn’t really worked with energy efficiency systems before coming to PEA the first time, but I’m an engineer, so I always have to learn new systems and adapt very quickly.

How much time have you spent in Antarctica so far during your lifetime?

At the end of this season, it will have been a total of 21 months that I’ve spent in Antarctica: three summer seasons and one winter season. I did an overwintering at the American Geographic South Pole Station during my work with the IceCube Project. It was a long winter. There are no planes in or out of there between February and November, so you’re stuck there for 9 months.

How does your experience at PEA stand out from other experiences you’ve had in Antarctica?

The scenery at PEA is much more beautiful than other places I’ve been. Here, on one side, you have the Sør Rondane Mountains and a plateau behind it, and on the other, you have slope that goes down towards the coast. At the Geographic South Pole, it’s just flat and white as far as you can see in all directions, which isn’t that interesting.

The atmosphere here is very friendly. It’s not a huge polar programme like the Americans have where you can feel anonymous. In big polar programmes, you’re just put in your corner to do what you’ve been hired to do, and you’re not free to try your own ideas. But here, we work as a team, and I’m free to try any ideas that I have, although that means I also have more responsibilities, which I don’t mind. Everyone is always willing to lend a hand to help each other out. There’s more of a feeling of camaraderie at PEA. You don’t get that kind of experience in a large polar programme.

Author: Joseph Cheek

Picture: Erik Verhagen, PEA station engineer - © IPF

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