Extreme electronics in Antarctica

Martin Tomasz -June 20, 2012

In 2001 I left my engineering job in Silicon Valley and took a job as the “electronics technician” for the US Antarctic Program at McMurdo Research Station. I had a day to acclimatize to this new life of ice and 24 hour daylight before I started my job.

The electronics “shop” was a small room in the basement of the main science building. You’d enter through a small door that looked like a janitor’s closet across from this huge industrial roomful of aquarium tanks humming with water pumps and full of strange Antarctic specimens collected by the science divers.

Nobody ever wandered down there except the odd marine biologist to check on the tanks or to collect octopuses that managed climbed their way out of the tanks, or those who needed my services and knew where to find me.

My job was to support science electronics, but on my first day I was greeted by a pile of broken hot plates, coffee makers and boomboxes, still waiting to be fixed from last season.

There’s not a single store on this continent where you can buy these appliances, so my first challenge was to keep consumer products meant to be disposable on life support. My first week was spent with shrink-wrap tubing, glue guns, and amusing mechanical fixes with lots of tie wraps and nuts and bolts (I actually gutted the receiver from a smashed radio and installed it in the housing from another one).

The science gear support was trickier. The shop had floor-to-ceiling cabinets of components, representing the shopping list of every electronics tech for the past 50 years. The vacuum tubes, Pepsi can-sized capacitors with dried out electrolyte, huge carbon resistors and terminal wiring harnesses are here to stay thanks to the tremendous bureaucratic hoops to jump through to dispose of anything.

Luckily among the junk I found drawers of common bipolar transistors and FETs, lots of logic (including CD4000 stuff), and even some jellybean parts like LM324s and LM339s. I was also happy to find seemingly miles of purple shrink wrap tubing.

Scientists and students from the science teams would show up with their broken seismometers, battery chargers, Campbell data loggers, and RF penguin trackers. 

On a good day I’d succeed in fixing their gear and they’d stay to chat for hours about their field projects. One day a team of “fuelies” (the group that handles fuels on station- you can smell them coming) arrived in my shop with a dead electric winch for unrolling a mile of fuel hose- easily fixed by taking apart and sanding down the grimy relay contacts.

They were grateful for the fix, wrote a note to the station manager that apparently I saved the new ice runway from a fuel crisis, and invited me onto their bowling team (McMurdo has perhaps the oldest bowling lane in the world, one of the first manual-pin reset alleys made by Brunswick). Job satisfaction was high!

I was able to fix a fluorescent tube power supply in a fluorometer with a “close enough” high voltage transistor, but the mysterious flame photometer (with an illuminated button labeled “Urine” apparently for calcium urinalysis) remained an enigma to me- perhaps it was never even broken, I could never test it.

I had fun redesigning and rebuilding a few “challenged” circuits, including a bad power supply for the autonomous geophysical observatories, which involved an exciting trip by ski-equipped LC130 to the polar plateau.

Since my gig in Antarctica I’ve had many challenges as an engineer, but it’s fun to look back at my time there and think how I’d ever lived without overnight shipping from Digi-Key.

Martin Tomasz, Senior Scientist, Touchstone Semiconductor

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