A “cool” research project
Winter fishermen who struggle augering through thick ice would be envious of UW-Madison's enhanced hot-water drill, which researchers hope will plow through an average of 4 1/2 feet of ice per minute.
The university researchers aren't seeking to study fish, however. The drill is just one component of IceCube, a complex international project that looks to learn more about one of the most fleeting, elusive particles known to man: the neutrino.
Among the fundamental particles that comprise the universe, neutrinos are similar in nature to electrons, but are nearly massless and do not carry electric charge. As a result, they mostly pass through matter without interference and without our knowledge. But when neutrinos interact with ice, they radiate a cone of blue light.
The dark, transparent ice at the South Pole provides an ideal environment for researchers to "see" and study these neutrinos and trace their origins. That's where the ice drill comes in — and that's where Engineering Physics Professor Daniel Kammer enters the picture.
When it's complete in five years, IceCube will consist of an array of about 80 2 1/2 kilometer-deep holes within the polar icecap, encompassing a cubic kilometer of ice. After a team drills a hole, researchers will race to lower in an electrical cable fitted with 60 optical sensors before the ice refreezes.
A UW-Madison team led by Space Science and Engineering Center Associate Instrument Innovator Mark Mulligan designed, built and tested the drill system, which includes a reel large enough to hold 2 1/2 kilometers of hose. "It weighs about 25 tons without any water in the hose," he says. "With water in the hose, it's about 50 tons."
Both the 33-foot-long reel and a 20-foot-tall drilling tower have to handle high loads — not to mention the adverse conditions of the South Pole's frigid "summer." And the National Science Foundation, the project's funding agency, wanted to make doubly sure the equipment was up for the challenge. So Mulligan asked Kammer, a professional engineer, to join the project as an independent consultant who could review the design, analysis and testing.
"There are all kinds of different issues, not only from a safety standpoint, but also if something fails, then essentially the entire project is on hold for a year until its summer again down there," says Kammer, an expert in structural loads analysis.
After studying all of project team's reports and analyses and witnessing testing, which took place at the university's Physical Sciences Laboratory, Kammer helped revise the language in a report to NSF and gave the project the thumbs-up.
In August, the drilling system, packed neatly in about 18 huge shipping containers, started its long journey to the South Pole. By late December, says Mulligan, it should be assembled so that in January — the South Pole summer — teams can begin drilling their first holes.
And Kammer — who won't be flying to the South Pole anytime soon — will be keeping an eye on the results. "It's a neat project and it's kind of fun to be at least a little bit involved," he says.