Drill projects set to expand sub-surface climate knowledge

Glasgow University engineers are providing their drilling expertise to projects that will extract rock samples from the Antarctic and deep beneath extraterrestrial surfaces.

(Image: Glasgow University)

Dr Patrick Harkness and Dr Kevin Worrall from the James Watt School of Engineering are leading the engineering research on a projected titled INCISED which is headed to Antarctica, and the ESA-funded Deeper project to build a collapsible drill for sample collection on other planets.

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Led by Durham University and funded by the European Research Council, INCISED will use Glasgow University’s Percussive Rapid Access Isotope Drill (P-RAID) drill technology, which was developed in collaboration with Durham University and the British Antarctic Survey, to take samples of bedrock from underneath the ice sheet.

P-RAID is said to be a rotary-percussive device that can be lowered from the polar surface to the bedrock. According to Glasgow University, the drill’s hammering action is carefully controlled by an autonomous system and uses as little force as possible.

Once the rock samples are returned to the UK, they will undergo isotope analysis at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) in East Kilbride. The results will help scientists to learn more about when the rocks were last exposed by retreating ice, which will improve future climate models and expand understanding on how much sea level rise could be expected in a warmer world.

Working again with the British Antarctic Survey, and in partnership with RolaTube and Apogee Engineering, Project Deeper will see the team create a lightweight, flexible drill-string that can be coiled up inside a rover, like a tape measure, when it is not in use.

When the rover reaches an area of interest, the drill will begin to unspool the flattened drill-string. This material will then reportedly double over itself to create a pipe that can be extended downwards by continuing to rotate the hub. This could allow far deeper drilling than current technology and enable more detailed analysis from further back in time.

In a statement, Dr Harkness said: “Comparing the climate histories of two different planets will allow us to unpick how much climate change is natural, and how much has been driven by industrialisation. The two activities also support one another technologically: ideas originally developed for space can be put to use in the polar regions, and the experience of deployment to those harsh environments helps to mature technology for space.

“We’re glad to be working with our partners on these two projects which expand the scope of both earthbound and space-based rock sampling, and we’re looking forward to getting out into the field in the coming months.”

Both drills will be integrated at Glasgow University, with testing at Saint-Gobain’s Bantycock Quarry in Nottinghamshire next year, with xpeditions to Greenland and Antarctica to follow.