Arctic Foundations Inc: Solutions For Building On Permafrost

Partners in Development; A Supplement to Petroleum News • Alaska; September 2001

Arctic Foundations, Inc. (AFI) is a locally owned and operated company located in Anchorage.  Despite its relative anonymity, the company has been successful on a global basis thanks to the innovative and award-winning thinking of its founder and president, Erwin ‘Erv’ Long.

Arctic Foundations, Inc. (AFI) is a locally owned and operated company located in Anchorage.  Despite its relative anonymity, the company has been successful on a global basis thanks to the innovative and award-winning thinking of its founder and president, Erwin ‘Erv’ Long.

Long’s patented thermo-syphon foundation systems are researched, designed, and manufactured by AFI’s fabrication shop, which is an ASME code-certified facility.  To date, there are over 600 installations of his designs all over the world.

Long credits his success to growing up in farm country, where real-life challenges inspired creative solutions.

Love of flying brought Long to Alaska:  Long’s love of flying led to his first visit to Alaska.

But his decision to pursue aviation started a little earlier.  It was his interest in flying that prompted him to attend the University of Minnesota:  “In early World Ward II, you had to be a college graduate to get into the Air Force,” Long said.  “The superintendent never did tell me what my scholastic scores were.  He told me he didn’t think I could make it (through college).”  The fact is, that was a challenge.

Long proved the superintendent wrong.

During his junior year of college, Long purchased a surplus airplane with the intention of fixing it up for an Alaska passenger service.

“By the time I got up here though, the market was saturated with the same type of airplane, so I started Bush flying,” he said.

The beginning of Arctic Foundations:  Long returned to Minnesota and finished his last year of school.  “I was so intrigued with Alaska, that the day after I graduated (with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering), I headed back up here.  The market was so saturated with bush pilots at that time (late 1940s) that it didn’t pay very well.  The only good job I could come up with was the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers.  Their lab was doing all of the work for all of the government agencies in Alaska including the FAA.”

Permafrost was the Corps’ biggest problem, so Long started doing research in his own backyard.  It was there he came up with the first thermo transfer process – the Long Thermopile – in 1956.

Long and co-owner, Sam Parsons, founded Arctic Foundations in 1973 while Long still worked for the Corps of Engineers.  Long took over the company in 1976, when he retired from the Corps.

Today, AFI employs another engineer, Edward Yarmak, Jr., who has been with Arctic Foundations for more than 20 years; several full-time welders; two administrators; and additional laborers as needed for contractual commitments.

Seven foundation permafrost products patented:  During the years since the first (still-operational) commercial Thermo Pile installations in 1960 for the Aurora Communications Tower, Long has patented six more permafrost foundation-related ideas.  His inventions include the Thermo Piles, Thermo Ring-Piles, Ring-Piles and Thermo Probes.

According to AFI’s Web site, the versatile Thermo Probe system “can be installed in all positions including vertical, angled and horizontal, and (can be) spaced to create a continuous frozen barrier wall of most any required shape and size.”

How the thermo-syphons work:  “The beauty of the Thermo Piles is that they operate on a simple thermodynamic principal,” Long said.  The passive thermo-syphons do not require mechanical refrigeration and two phases dependent on a temperature differential of less than one degree between the atmospheric and permafrost ambient temperatures.

Operating on the principal of convection, the first phase (also called the condensation phase) takes place when the warm gaseous vapor rises into the aboveground radiator portion of the thermo-syphon.  The colder atmospheric temperature cools the vapor on the condenser’s walls, thereby giving off heat, which radiates out to the atmosphere.  Gravity returns the liquid condensate to the evaporator buried in the ground where phase two (the evaporation phase) takes place.  The relatively warmer permafrost causes the liquid refrigerant to boil, which in turn produces the vapor that rises to the condenser where the cycle repeats itself.

According to AFI’s Web site, thermo-syphons are built to last and because their steel surfaces are “exposed to unfrozen soil and atmospheric moisture for scores of years and must be highly resistant to oxidation and corrosive action.”  The company treats the thermo-syphons with one or more of their protective coating processes.

AFI applies the coatings in Anchorage where the company manufactures the Thermo Piles.  Because of the Thermo Piles’ unique design, the company can ship smaller units whole to installation sites.  Larger units can be shipped in sections to be assembled on site.

Company finds clients in Prudhoe Bay:  When one considers the application of thermo-syphons, Prudhoe Bay’s extreme arctic climate and expanding hydrocarbon industry comes to mind, Long said.  As expected, application of Long’s Thermo Piles can be found on the North Slope where they have even been used to convert existing foundations to Long’s more permafrost stable system.

Most of the oil and oil service companies have made use of Long’s technology on the North Slope.

Other uses include Native corporations, school districts, airports hospitals, power and utility companies, and more.

Thanks to AFI’s work, buildings and roadways throughout Alaska avoid damaging soil movements caused by the repeated thawing and freezing of the permafrost.

With this kind of innovative thinking, it is no wonder that Long received the Alaska Engineer of the Year award in 1978, and the 1991 ASCE’s Harold R. Peyton award for Cold Regions Engineering.

Long, a registered Professional Civil Engineer in the state of Alaska, still derives special pleasure from on-site problem solving.

And yes, he still loves to fly!

(Article Insert)

 Warm weather uses for thermo-syphons
Oak Ridge National Laboratory uses thermo-syphons to contain radionuclide pond

In 1997, Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory installed Arctic Foundation’s thermo-syphons to create a cryogenic barrier to contain radionuclide contaminants.

Established during World War II, ORNL’s purpose was atomic weapon production.  In 1955, the laboratory dug a pond that measured 79 feet  by 76 feet.  The 316,000-gallon, 15-foot deep pond shielded water and liquid waste products from the Homogeneous Reactor-2 Experiments conducted from 1951 to 1961.

ORNL closed the pond in 1970, filled it with shale, covered it with 8 inches of crushed lime stone and paved it with 1.5 inches of asphalt.

Years later, Arctic Foundations arrived with a mission:  to prevent groundwater penetration and contaminants from leaching out of the pond margins.  The company corralled the area with ice by creating a frozen barrier that measured 300-feet long and 30-feet deep in soil that had an original temperature of 66 F.

It took 16 weeks and $3,500 of electricity to achieve the 12-foot-wide wall of ice.

A “hybrid thermo-syphon” system used as compressor to maintain the frozen soil boundary and allowed Long’s device to function in temperate regions.

One might immediately wonder what impact a power outage would have on the icy barricade, as did the engineers.  They predicted it would take a full year for the stockade to melt without the electrically powered refrigeration system.  In reality, cutting off the compressor’s power for an eight-day test reduced the barrier’s thickness by only 2.5 percent.

This frozen barrier has effectively stopped radioactive contamination of the groundwater.

The “hybrid thermo-syphon” system is a cost-effective solution for shoring up other antiquated hazardous waste material storage sites, said Long.

According to AFI’s web  site, additional advantages of containing the radioactive wastes with this environmentally safe barrier include:  “ice does not degrade or weaken over time, no reactions or by-products are created, (it) provides a means to fully contain wastes, (and) fractures from ground movement are repairable in situ.”