The ice buggy that made the first round-trip trek across the Antarctic, powered by biofuel and a propellor. (George Pacliero)
In December, a British team completed the first-ever there and- back vehicular Antarctic crossing, traversing 2,000 miles in 13 days to smash the previous record. This was their secret weapon: a biofuel, propellor-driven ice buggy. Expedition leader Andrew Moon recalls the journey:
Nothing like our ice vehicle has ever been built before. When we were planning the expedition, someone suggested a tiny kite-powered ice buggy that had been developed for a previous trip, but it was too small, too light for us. We knew that our buggy would have to be bigger and tougher, with skis large enough to handle the rough terrain.
We went to Lotus, told them what we thought would work, and they came back with this design. Even with the appalling weather we had – we were hit by one of Antarctica’s worst storms in 15 years going down onto the Ross Ice Shelf – the ice vehicle was brilliant. It was such a high to see it operating well. The skis were big enough to handle the rough stuff, and the suspension worked perfectly.
The first design had a BMW engine, but we calculated it wouldn’t produce enough power at altitude – we reached an altitude of 9,500ft on the crossing. So we ended up with a Rotax aircraft engine running on biofuel. We wanted to prove a point: if you can take a biofuel vehicle to the Pole, you can take one anywhere.
We ran a couple of cold-weather tests in Sweden, but there’s no way to accurately model the extremities of the South Pole. We had no idea how much fuel the ice vehicle would burn – according to one set of calculations, we didn’t have enough to make it there and back. Turned out we did.
Every Antarctic start is a cold start. Knowing how many tarpaulins and blankets we needed to keep the engine warm was tricky.
Everyone wanted to drive the ice vehicle. We had two six-wheeler trucks, too, but it was warmer in the buggy: you have an extra layer of clothing and a full-face helmet. It’s fun, easy to drive. You wear a five-point harness, and the controls are a bit like a powerboat: you control the throttle with one hand, pitch with the other. We improved the steering after early tests – it went from being really heavy and piggish to nice and light.
We could build a better "MkII" buggy based on what we learnt: a two-seater with more fuel capacity. It could play an important role in cold climates for search-and-rescue, scientific exploration and expedition support. But in today’s economy, unless the military need one, I’m not sure how much of a market there is.
We didn’t set out to break the record for crossing Antarctica. We knew that, if we got there and back without too many hitches, we would break records, but we didn’t push ourselves to do so. We camped and we stopped to carry out research for Imperial College. It was an adventure, but a scientific mission too.
Britain has a proud history of Antarctic exploration. As a nation, we’ve got a reputation for adventure. This was only the third vehicle crossing of Antarctica in history, and the first to get there and back. There are very few places in the world that remain unexplored. For us to push the envelope of what can be done in Antarctica, that felt good.