Engineers in Alaska using the sun to chill thawing permafrost

Engineers with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium work on a solar-powered thermosiphon...
Engineers with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium work on a solar-powered thermosiphon system they hope will chill thawing permafrost. (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Sep. 7, 2019 at 5:57 PM AKDT
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Harnessing the power of the sun to cool the ground sounds contradictory, but it's what a team of engineers with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium is doing to save infrastructure in rural Alaska.

Thawing permafrost is threatening vital energy, water, and sanitation infrastructure in many remote Alaskan communities, according to ANTHC. Senior Project Manager for ANTHC’s Division of Environmental Health and Engineering Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer says the cost to maintain existing infrastructure is much lower than the cost to relocate an entire community.

“If we’re able to protect infrastructure in-place, it allows communities to adapt appropriately; they won’t have to relocate,” Schaeffer said. “Protecting in-place is the best solution.”

ANTHC, in tandem with the State of Alaska's Village Safe Water Program, has installed over $40 million dollars of pipe, water, and sanitation systems in over 100 rural Alaskan communities across the state. Schaeffer has worked directly with community members on these projects.

"The highest concern for tribal leaders is how do we adapt in this changing climate? Because in the last two years, we're seeing extreme changes that haven't been witnessed before,” Schaeffer said, “and the most vital risk here is public health."

If infrastructure fails, Schaeffer says communities are left entirely without services. That’s why it’s so important to engineer affordable, sustainable solutions to thawing permafrost. Bailey Gamble, ANTHC energy management engineer, has been working on one possible solution since Jan. 2019.

"As that infrastructure is threatened, it's up to us to help communities adapt," Bailey said. "What's really special about this design is it can be operated on renewables -- solar power. So it's really cool, and very crazy, to think about the fact that you can take the energy from the sun and then use that to freeze the ground.”

The idea of refrigerating the ground using a machine called a thermosiphon isn't a new one, according to ANTHC Engineering Services Manager William Fraser. What makes this project unique is the renewable energy aspect -- using solar instead of energy generated by fossil fuels is more sustainable, and cheaper. Fraser says the design is for Alaska Native villages, first and foremost, but it has caught the attention of both oil companies and the U.S. Military.

"There is a lot of interest, and there is a lot of pressure, to address the consequences of foundation failures in Alaska," Fraser said.

The team estimates about $125,000 has gone into the development of the thermosiphon prototype, but once it’s up and running it will be affordable to install and user-friendly to maintain.

They plan to test the prototype over the course of one year at the Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. They will analyze the data and develop a revamped model based on their findings. The final product will likely begin to be installed in communities sometime in 2021, according to ANTHC.

Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer says the communities ANTHC helps support are crying out for help in addressing the impacts of a warming climate.

"In those communities, tribal leaders are looking to us for those solutions,” Schaeffer said. “We have to change the way we think, and the way we address these problems, because there are no solutions to date.”

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