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Simple Science Keeps Alaska's Permafrost Frozen

Published On: Feb 12 2014 06:45:10 PM AKST   Updated On: Feb 12 2014 06:45:20 PM AKST

An Anchorage company is the only manufacturer in the United States of thermosyphons, a simple machine that works as a cooling system for permafrost that arctic infrastructure is built on.

All over Alaska, heat from roadways and buildings can cause the ice in unstable permafrost to melt, creating problems for infrastructure.

"If you're going to put a building on permafrost, unless the permafrost is thaw stable, which most of it isn't, your building is going to settle," said Ed Yarmak, president of Arctic Foundations.

A thermosyphon draws heat from underground and vents it into the air above ground. There is no electricity or maintenance required. It is simple science at work, said Yarmak, and only manufactured in their small facility in Anchorage.

The technology was developed in the 1960s by Erv Long, who started Arctic Foundations. Today, they’re used by cold climate engineers who know the affects of developing on ground that could "melt."

"If you can keep the ground frozen with these simple devices, then your building is going to be stable," said Yarmak.

On the University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus, Thompson Drive is serving as a test site for thermosyphons built under the roadway. Doug Goering, dean of UAF's College of Engineering and Mines, is part of a study aimed at improving the longevity of arctic roads.

"Roadways tend to melt permafrost because in the summer time,” he said. “They're like nice black solar collectors.”

Thompson Drive was constructed ten years ago with 150 thermosyphons staggered horizontally under the surface. So far, it's working to keep the road stable and the permafrost frozen.

"Many times when you have a road in Fairbanks that has been in place for ten years, it's starting to have problems. This road is perfectly level and there're no problems with the asphalt or even the sidewalks," said Goering.

The thermosyphons were manufactured at Arctic Foundations. Nearly all of the thermosyphons in Alaska were made there, except for those that are along the Alyeska pipeline.