The British team is exploring the subglacial Ellsworth Lake.
The British team is exploring the subglacial Ellsworth Lake.

Pumps from Italian-based Caprari has helped a group of scientists search for primeval life beneath Antarctica.

For the last 16 years, a British team of researchers has been involved in an ambitious mission: explore Subglacial Ellsworth Lake beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet in what has been described as the deepest drilling project of all times, looking for signs of primeval life.

The aim has been to gain “cores”, each containing just 100 ml of water, thought to date back to one million years ago.

The first borehole was drilled last winter and reached a depth of 300 m, and Caprari pumps were used for the project. Water heated to 90°C was pumped into the borehole at a pressure of up to 138 bar. About 210 litres per minute of water were pumped in. A race against time since the bore channel, measuring just 360 mm, froze at a rate of 0.6 cm per hour despite the hot water pumped into it. 

To equalise the pressure of the water, a cavity the size of a ship cargo container had to be created at the ends of the two bore channels drilled. 

A 1.5MW industrial boiler produced 90,000 litres of hot water, which was gradually pumped in through three basins. Power feeding was supplied by several generators.

Around 100 tons of equipment had to be flown to the research site -  some of it travelled 16,00 0km away - and most had to be sterilised. This equipment included a Caprari submersible pump which, as project manager Martin Siegert stated: "worked very well" despite the extremely adverse operating conditions.

The efficient stainless steel borehole electric pump was coupled to a motor designed by Caprari. With 22 kW output at 400V, the pump produced approximately 300 litres/min flow rate at the depth reached in the project. Its overall diameter was just 146 mm, 2.5 m in length and weighing 111 kg. The unit was assembled on the hot-water drilling head, which alone weighed 200 kg and was 1.4 m long. A compact, one-piece, 3,200 m feed pipe was made to operate the unit.

The project, which has not yet been completed, has cost €9.2 million to date.


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