Global warming is affecting culture and habitat at the extremes of the earth, according to the Global Warming Project. “Rapid climate change and its effects is fast becoming one of the prime events of the 21st century,” it concluded.
Northern engineer, innovator and entrepreneur Erwin “Erv” Long has been watching land and weather cycles in the North for nearly 60 years, well before the term “global warming” was coined. More and more he understands the importance of keeping frozen ground frozen — stabilized soil is inherent to Arctic construction and infrastructure.
Understanding permafrost is not only important to civil engineering and architecture, it’s also a crucial part of studying global change and protecting the environment in cold regions, according to the IRC Institute for Research in Construction.
“As man has widened his horizons and encroached on these frozen areas throughout the Arctic, sub-Arctic and Antarctic regions of the world,” said Long, “one of the major engineering and construction obstacles has been the permafrost. Our frozen lands have become more and more of a challenge to planners, engineers, contractors and scientists alike.”
Arctic innovationLong started Arctic Foundations Inc. (AFI) in the early 1970s while still working at the Corps of Engineers. He has more than 60 years experience as an innovator in foundation construction and technology for frozen soils and frozen barriers. He recognized the advantage of freezing previously thawed unstable ground and the need to maintain permafrost, which led to the development of his Thermopile system and a patent on his thermal transfer process.
The company analyzes, designs and manufactures heat removal and ground freezing systems that enhance the engineering characteristics of soil and rock. Strengthening soils, controlling water, and immobilizing water borne hazardous contaminants are typical benefits to end-users.
Headquartered in Anchorage, Alaska AFI bases all operations for its ground freezing systems at a single location, including management, administration, research, product development, engineering, and manufacturing. The complex is comprised of 12,500 square feet of building space and 53,000 square feet of yard space It includes three shops rare to Alaska: a metal spray and fusion plastic coatings shop, a pressure vessel shop, and an ASME code authorized fabrication shop.
Although in earlier years the company engineered designs for each project, today’s emphasis is development and manufacturing. According to Long, the company continues to improve products and technology, to be able to offer customers more, well conceived solutions to increasing geotechnical problems.
According to the Institute of Northern Engineering, the arctic climate is moving toward tremendous changes and AFI is trying to keep pace through technology.
“Now that more and more people are looking to counteract global warming and how it can affect infrastructure and construction, they are looking at long-term solutions, including us,” said Long, “and AFI systems are designed for the long-term. So, our quantity of work continues to increase, which is one of the reasons we have shifted our focus to manufacturing, just to keep up!”
Understanding permafrostPermafrost is soil that remains frozen throughout the year, occurring as large continuous areas of frozen soil, or in scattered patches surrounded by soil that experiences normal freeze-thaw cycles, or discontinuous permafrost. In all cases, an active layer of soil that experiences normal freezing and thawing during the seasons overlies permafrost.
“Permafrost soils must be kept frozen for the soil not to lose its bearing capacity,” cautions Long. “When soil has relatively high water content in the active layer, measures must be taken to keep it frozen. When soil contains massive ice deposits, extra care must be taken in the design of the foundation if this is the case. … Buildings transmit heat to the underlying soil through conduction, convection, and radiation. This can thaw frozen soil, leading to foundation displacement.”
TechnologyIn recognition of his innovative solutions, Long received the Alaska Engineer of the Year award in 1978, and the ASCE’s Harold R. Peyton award for Cold Regions Engineering in 1991.
Arctic Foundation’s primary product is the Thermosyphon, or pressure vessels with aluminum and fusion coat epoxy finish, also called Thermoprobes. The Thermosyphon is strictly a heat-transfer device, basically a closed evaporation condensation system, extracting excess heat out of the earth, when used to maintain frozen conditions.
“Let’s go from the top down,” explains Long. “Air colder than the ground causes condensation on the inside of the top of Thermosyphon that reduces pressure in it. That reduction then permits boiling of the liquid below ground, which causes reduction in temperature and permits heat to transfer from soil to the Thermosyphon. One noted use for this technology was in the vertical support members on the trans-Alaska pipeline.”
Thermosyphon barrier freezing technology compares favorably to many of the non-freezing technologies to depths of 50 feet — and is unbeatable at greater depths for project durations of five years or longer, according to the company, including microbial barriers, sheet piling, slurry walls, grout injection, pump-treat-inject, in situ vitrification and membrane barriers.
“We’ve become a leader in state-of-the-art permafrost foundations, ground stabilization pressure vessels, Thermopiles and Thermoprobes and frozen barriers, and we continue to develop and advance Thermosyphon technology as techniques improve in related sectors of the geotechnical industry.”
Practical geotechnical solutionsPractical uses for Long’s technologies are found in building foundations, mining, dams, and waste containment.
According to Long, thermo design of a foundation to maintain permafrost must extract heat from building of seasonal thaw from above, geothermal heat from below, warmer soils surrounding the site, buried water and sewer lines, runoff from building roofs, and surface drainage. Design must also allow for seasonal thaw without affecting the total foundation area.
“For foundations, our clients are the engineers. We build to their specs,” says Long.
Confinement of a buried hazardous waste can be accomplished by directly freezing a contaminated soil mass or by surrounding it with a frozen barrier.
“AFI’s Hybrid Thermosyphon Technology is a well-established technology that is ideally suited to the long-term containment and immobilization of many subsurface hazardous wastes that the US Department of Energy has targeted as part of their environmental management program,” Arctic Foundations told Petroleum News. “These contaminants include tritium, strontium 90, DNAPLs, and many others. Few technologies can match ours.”
Ground freezing can be a beneficial technology for dam building without regard to any specific industry, or the purpose the dam serves. A frozen dam can be even more effective than a traditional type because freezing can more effectively seal multiple soils types in the dam and, if necessary, well below it, as evidenced at the Panda Dam and Ekati Diamond Mine in Canada’s Northwest Territory, and a tailings dam in the Russian Far East. The technology Long that uses for mining and dams is the same as that employed for permafrost foundations or frozen barriers.
As development continues in the unstable arctic and subarctic areas, these systems become more refined and improved. AFI has designed and worked with many aspects of the soil stabilization problem, according to the company website. “We have developed frost-proof benchmarks for use by surveyors, pioneered controlled thawing techniques to eliminate frost in some areas, and worked extensively on stabilization of land-slide areas. Our experience also includes development of impervious frozen barriers to confine hazardous waste and control groundwater, passive freezers, geothermal heating, systems for powerline foundations and anchors, and have done work on permafrost water supply dams, levees, and groins for river bank stabilization.”
Global reputationArctic Foundations, Inc. has a global reputation for its innovative cold-weather and arctic engineering, but another important aspect of its success comes from company stability and longevity. The entire staff typically consists of fewer than 20 employees at any given time, but besides Long, there are three employees who have been with Arctic Foundations for over 25 years — Edward Yarmak, Jr., chief engineer; Eric Johnson, shop foreman; and Leslie Patton, office manager.
Arctic Foundations serves clients in multiple industries, including oil and gas, mining, state and federal governments and individual business — anyone who needs to maintain frozen ground over long periods of time or who requires a frozen barrier or foundation. And, it depends on suppliers in Washington State and the Pacific Northwest for its specialized materials.
“We have the ability to be flexible, build for unusual demands, deliver on schedule, and manufacture a consistent, high quality product and continual improvement. Firms call us from all over the world,” said Long. “We provide guidance to the engineers and customize products for their use.”