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Green research base to be built in Antarctic

June 5, 2006 By Alison Abbott This article courtesy of Nature News.

Belgium aims for total self-sustainability

Belgium is going to build the first self-sustaining Antarctic research station.

The €6.4-million (US$8.2 million) Princess Elisabeth Antarctic research station, which will be constructed during the 2007/2008 Antarctic summer (the start of the International Polar Year), has been designed to be highly energy-efficient. It will be powered by solar and wind energy alone and will recycle all its waste.

The Belgian government committed itself to building and maintaining the station on 19 May, and the plans were announced on 31 May by the International Polar Foundation (IPF). "This will be Antarctica's most sustainable research platform," said IPF chairman Alain Hubert. "It will not cause any damage to the pristine Antarctic environment'.

Other Antarctic stations typically have some wind and solar-power facilities, but usually rely on diesel generators for some of their energy, particularly in the cold winters when sun is scarce. However, all are keen to minimize the affects of their stations on the environment. "All Antarctic operators are aspiring to make their new stations as self-sustaining as possible," says Karl Tuplin, project manager of the British Antarctic Survey's new Halley VI station, which is also being built during the 2007/2008 Antarctic summer.

The Belgian approach is good, says Tuplin, although it is a relatively small station. "It's hard to scale this up," he says.

The Princess Elisabeth will be a particularly compact building, around a quarter of the size of most polar stations, says Johan Berte, the Brussels-based project manager. The base will typically house 12 people, mostly scientists carrying out climate research, but could accommodate up to 20. They expect a usual maximum energy need of about 30 kilowatts.

Halley VI, in contrast, is designed for 52 people. Its target is not total self-sustainability but a reduction in energy usage of 15% compared with the current station. "We are trying to do this primarily through energy efficiency, although we will be plugging in renewable energy sources as the technologies develop," says Tuplin.

Constant supply

The Belgian station will be situated inland, close to the Sor Rondane mountains in Dronning Maud Land, where Belgium maintained its Roi Baudouin base for a decade 40 years ago. The country has been without an Antarctic base since then.

"Belgium has a small but significant community of polar researchers who normally have to pay to work at other stations," says Berte. "Now we'll have our station, and we can organize exchanges with scientists from other countries."

The base will function in its first years as just a summer station, getting almost all of its energy from solar panels built into its roof and sides. But project managers hope it will eventually be used all year round. The powerful winds in winter should allow sufficient energy to be harvested by up to ten small 6-kilowatt turbines, says Berte, so they should get power even in the winter darkness. The station does have an emergency generator that will be powered up now and again to ensure the safety of those living inside, he adds.

Berte previously worked as a space instrumentation designer on the International Space Station, so he knows a lot about designing for extreme environmental conditions. "What we learn about building design in the fierce Antarctic climate can be transferred to more temperate climates, where architects often try to design in an energy-efficient way," he says.

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