Oceanographers develop remote power module

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Oceanographers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are getting ready to install a device designed to provide alternative energy for scientific instruments along the Arctic Coast.

Their "remote power module" is equipped with four wind turbines and solar panels. Wind and solar energy will provide five days' worth of battery charge. If the batteries get low, the module recharges using a biodiesel generator.

The device initially will power radar used to map sea surface currents in the Arctic Ocean.

"In principle, the device means that we can deploy the radar systems anywhere along Alaska's coast," said Tom Weingartner, professor of physical oceanography and the principal investigator for the project.

Scientists will install the module in Barrow this month and test it until November, assisting Weingartner's research to map sea surface currents along the coast of the Beaufort Sea.

"Sea surface current mapping in the Arctic is in its infancy compared to other regions," he said in an e-mail. That's partly due to the lack of power sources in the remote region.

"There are more or less permanent stations ringing most of the Lower 48," he said.

The radars send signals over the water's surface, where they reflect off the top of waves. Radar signals are bounced back to antennae and the data is transmitted in real time to scientists in Fairbanks. The goal is a better understanding of marine ecosystems processes, plus information to aid in offshore activities, assistance in search and rescue operations, and, in a petroleum spill, assistance in cleanup, Weingartner said.

The wind turbines are 600-watt, 24-volt DC units with 5-foot-6-inch blades. Each weighs 35 pounds. They're mounted on 18-foot towers connected to a 5-foot platform that can be adjusted for unstable soils typical of Arctic coastlines, said Hank Statscewich, a researcher at the UAF School of Fisheries. The platform alone weighs 1,070 pounds and has 12 adjustable feet.

Each of the 18 solar panels is rated to produce 200 watts. The battery bank has a capacity of 2,800 amp-hours.

"This would provide about 3-4 days of run time for the unit in the absence of any charging source," Statscewich said. "The generator is specifically tuned for this battery bank and only produces DC charging current. This makes it extremely efficient as there are no losses in converting from AC to DC and back again."

If the battery bank is discharged down to half of its capacity, the engine will kick in for about eight hours to charge it to 99 percent capacity.

The oceanographers will store 55 gallons of fuel at the site for about 110 hours of run time.

"It is our hope that the generator serves as a safety net and that 95 percent of the time the combination of wind and solar will keep the radars running through the Arctic open water season or year-round in more southern coastal Alaskan locations," Statscewich said.

The module also is equipped to collect meteorological and oceanographic data. It houses communications equipment that allows researchers in Fairbanks to configure the device by satellite.

The 16-by-20-foot module weighs about 6,000 pounds. It breaks down into components weighing less than 120 pounds each. The design should allow two people to set it up, service it or move it.

The $890,000 project was paid for by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Oceanographers spent two years designing and developing the device.

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