13 March 2012
Towards a cleaner, greener Antarctic
RMIT University is collaborating with the University of Otago on research to reduce the environmental impact of an Antarctic base, in a world-first project that could be replicated across the continent.
Simon Lockrey travelled to Antarctica's Scott Base to conduct on-site analysis for the project.
Scott Base is an ideal location for a life cycle assessment, as it is fully self-contained.
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The project brings together life cycle assessment (LCA) with design interventions, the first time such a comprehensive approach has been used at an Antarctic base to model environmental impacts and propose design solutions.
Simon Lockrey, Research Fellow at RMIT's Centre for Design, travelled recently to Scott Base with Dr Mick Abbott from Otago University to conduct on-site auditing and analysis for the research project, which is funded by Antarctica New Zealand.
Mr Lockrey said the base had long been focused on efforts to minimise its impact on the environment and the project would identify areas for improvement.
"A key innovation in this project will be the development of an integrated model that equally considers waste streams and the actions of people living and working on the base," he said.
"From this holistic understanding of environmental flows, we will develop a number of mitigation strategies for reducing environmental impacts and present them back to Antarctica New Zealand."
The study will focus on the material flows of supplies packaging and waste, fuels, energy consumption and water use as well aiming to capture other processes that contribute to impacts.
The streamlined LCA will allow the researchers to compile and evaluate the inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts related to Scott Base's operation, establishing benchmarks that will provide tangible measures and allow comparative studies across sites and/or over time.
The tools used in the study have included life cycle inventories taking in food, supplies and energy, spatial analysis of layout and storage as well as thermal imaging to identify the key areas of heat loss in the base.
The researchers also examined behavioural aspects at the base, including personnel flow and use of space, as well as interviewing around one-third of the 30 on-site workers.
"The interviews touched on some psychological aspects of life on base to try and uncover why some things might be breaking down or why things worked well - whether it's related to attitudes, practices or processes," Mr Lockrey said.
Scott Base made an ideal location for an LCA as it was fully self-contained, with all necessary materials brought in and all waste removed, Mr Lockrey said.
"There is already strong interest in the project outcomes from the Antarctic research community, so our work could be applied to improving the processes, infrastructure and operations in other bases," he said.
"But what we will learn is transferable not just to other closed loop systems but also to buildings and cities around the world.
"Some of the existing sustainability efforts at the base - including in waste treatment and renewable energy production - could be applied outside Antarctica so we hope to document and highlight some of these best practice activities at the base."
Existing sustainability strategies at the base include a wind farm hooked into a smart grid, which automatically turns the base's diesel-powered generators on and off depending on wind levels. Any excess electricity generated by the wind farm is shared with a nearby US base, an innovative distributed system that could be applied to towns and cities.
While disposal of sewage remains a problem on the continent, the Scott Base's approach ensures none reaches the ocean - human waste is dehydrated into "cakes" and shipped back to New Zealand for treatment and landfill, where methane is recovered for further use as an energy source.
"This system of waste treatment and reuse was much like the one suggested by Buckminster Fuller in the 1930s for the home and its successful implementation at Scott Base demonstrates its viability as a potential alternative to our usual approach in remote areas," Mr Lockrey said.
The final results of the research project are due for publication mid-year.