Mount Erebus provides power for science | Polarjournal
A view into the lava lake of Mount Erebus. It has probably existed for over one hundred years, which is unusual. Photo: Nial Peters

Field research in Antarctica confronts scientists with major challenges in many respects. Extreme cold and violent storms not only take their toll on the researchers themselves, but also on their measuring instruments. The central aspect for data collection is the power supply. While this is ensured to some extent in summer with the help of solar panels, it can hardly be guaranteed during the long polar night. Scientists researching the lava lake of Mount Erebus have now found a solution for winter operation – they simply want to use the heat of the volcano to generate electricity. Researchers from the United Kingdom and the United States have presented details of how this works in a new study.

Mount Erebus is the southernmost active volcano on Earth and the most active volcano in Antarctica. It is one of the few volcanoes with an open lava lake at its summit, making it a unique natural laboratory for volcanic research. Historical expedition reports indicate that the lava lake has existed since at least the early 20th century, which is quite extraordinary, according to Philip Kyle, professor emeritus at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and co-author of the study.

Nial Peters installed a thermal camera on the crater rim to monitor the lava lake. His hope was that the generator would provide enough power for the camera during the polar night. Photo: Clive Oppenheimer

Volcanologists around the world continuously measure ground vibrations, rising gases, the temperature of flowing magma and other parameters throughout the year to investigate what is happening inside volcanoes. At Mount Erebus in Antarctica, these measurements were previously only possible as long as the sun provided the necessary energy. As soon as the light failed, the instruments soon stopped working. Scientists also use wind turbines to generate energy, but these can be destroyed by the strong storms. Apart from that, the volcano keeps spewing magma bombs that solidify as they fall and can destroy instruments deployed on its flanks.

Since 2009, Nial Peters, an engineer at University College London and lead author of the study, has been investigating Mount Erebus’ lava lake. He wanted to use a thermal camera to observe the magma year-round, but has so far failed because of the problem of power supply. A few years ago, he came across a way to get around the power problem – using a thermoelectric generator that converts heat into electricity. Not a new technology in itself, but so far unused in research on the icy continent. All it takes is a difference in temperature, e.g. between the ground and the air. The generator uses the heat flow to create a voltage difference that produces electricity. The ground temperature at the summit reaches 80°C in some places; enough to run such a generator.

In the summit region of Mount Erebus there are some ice-free spots where the ground temperature is up to 80°C. A – active main crater, B – side crater, C – site where the generator was installed. Photo: Peters et al. 2021, Cambridge University Press

“It’s quite a cool piece of technology that’s fun to use. It doesn’t solve all of your power problems for monitoring volcanoes, but it certainly has potential to be a very useful tool.”

Nial Peters, engineer at University College London and lead author of the study

In December 2014, Peters and his colleagues tested the first prototype at the volcano and found that the heat flux did indeed generate electricity, albeit only a quarter of a watt. That’s not enough for the thermal camera, but at least the generator was providing continuous power that would keep the camera’s batteries from running down. According to Peters, once the prototype is optimized, several generators could provide enough power to run various measurement instruments continuously year-round, such as infrasound sensors that record the volcano’s sounds – a breakthrough for volcanologists at Mount Erebus.

In order to be able to use the heat of the volcano, the prototype generator was partially buried in the hot ground. Photo: Nial Peters. The small picture on the left shows the entire generator. Photo: Bryn Jones

The researchers believe that this technology can be applied to other Antarctic volcanoes and to entirely different areas of research that use low-power instruments. It could also be used to monitor other volcanoes in the Southern Ocean that are on the flight path between New Zealand and McMurdo Station and could pose risks to aircrafts.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Peters, N., Oppenheimer, C., Jones, B., Rose, M., & Kyle, P. (2021). Harnessing Erebus volcano’s thermal energy to power year-round monitoring. Antarctic Science, 33(1), 73-80. doi:10.1017/S0954102020000553

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