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Design students thrash out problems of building bike for South Pole scientists

Monday, December 21, 1998

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

Designing a bicycle that can be used year-round at the South Pole requires attention to numerous details, none more important than finding a way to keep the rider's rump from freezing.

  Connor Killeen, left, and Brian Case, both industrial design students at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, show a model of a wheel they've been working on for a bike that would be used at the South Pole. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Yes, maintaining traction through drifts of granular snow the consistency of sand is a problem. Yes, navigating during the winter-long night is tough. Yes, heavy mittens make the use of handbrakes all but impossible.

But nothing cools a rider's enthusiasm for biking quite like cold buttocks.

Antarctic afterpieces have thus become a design problem for Bill Farrell, an industrial design instructor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and about 15 advanced design students who are working on the snow bike.

The bike project is the latest effort by the Art Institute on behalf of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, a University of Chicago-based consortium, funded by the National Science Foundation, that is building and operating a collection of telescopes at the South Pole.

Several years ago, design students worked with CARA scientists to design cold weather gear, such as goggles and boots, that would make life a little easier for the hardy band of scientists and technicians who winter at the South Pole, a location that is the very definition of desolate.

"There is a real practical value for the winter-over crew," said the University of Chicago's Randall Landsberg, CARA's education coordinator. "It's not exactly a fun walk between buildings," he explained, noting temperatures can reach 100 degrees below zero. With fuel at the Pole costing $11 a gallon, "if you have practical, useful vehicles that are people-powered, that would be just great."

And if they could be fun to ride, he added, that would be even better.

It's not that no one has ever tried cycling at the Pole. Jeff Peterson, a Carnegie Mellon University astrophysicist who built and operates Viper, one of the South Pole telescopes, has kept a bike at the Pole for 10 years now, riding it on roads and the runway on his visits during Antarctic summers.

But a member of the winter crew who also cycled found he had to abandon his bike as the skies grew dark and temperatures plummeted, Peterson said.

The Art Institute students have divided up the project, each concentrating on a different problem, such as developing windshields to protect against blowing snow, tires that won't become mired in snow drifts and outriggers to keep the bike upright, so heavily bundled riders won't have to stoop to pick it up.

"The whole thing's tough to tell the truth," said Brian Case, a student working on the tires. "Every area of the thing needs a special design, right down to the bearings."

Students have been consulting with manufacturers about materials that would withstand the shattering cold, low-temperature lubricants and designs that can be manipulated by riders swathed in cold-weather gear. They also have been getting advice from John Stamstad, an "ultramarathon" mountain biker, who won this year's 320-mile Alaska Iditasport Extreme Race, and mountain biking legend Dan Hanebrink, whose Big Bear Lake, Calif., company is building the special frames.

Hanebrink, who holds the bike speed record of 75 miles an hour, maintains the Antarctic bike will be a milestone in bike design.

The frame will be similar to one Hanebrink builds for his own line of $3,000 snow bikes, which feature 7-inch-wide rubber tires. But the Art Institute bikes will have coaster brakes, because the heavy mittens used in Antarctica make hand brakes impractical. And the idea of using outriggers - ski-like pads extending from either side of the back wheel - "is nothing I've ever encountered," Hanebrink said.

Hanebrink thinks rubber tires will fare well even at the South Pole. Peterson agreed, noting he just replaced the rubber tires on his South Pole bike. But Case and his fellow students are also exploring more radical designs, including an aluminum paddle wheel that would be fitted with stainless steel mesh to keep it from sinking into the snow.

"This is essentially a round snowshoe," Farrell said.

Case also has tried fashioning a polycarbonate wheel with the help of his employer, Tri-State Plastics. The polycarbonate can withstand extreme cold and, being hollow, it would float on the snow. The wheel is vacuum-formed in two pieces. When joined together, the edges form a ridge down the center of the tire face, serving as a keel to guide and stabilize the bike.

Even seat design is tricky, Farrell said, because a solid seat would compress the thick insulation of the rider's clothing, collapsing the air layers that provide protection against the cold. One way to keep the tush toasty may be to design a wire mesh seat that allows the insulation to slip through and remain fluffy. Or, Farrell said, adding heavy duty bubble wrap to the bum might help maintain the air layers.

The design effort extends to making sure riders can see where they're going during the constant darkness. William Gray, one of the students, has proposed a series of lights, powered by wind-powered generators, mounted on metal poles in the ice.

Farrell said they are also working on lighted goggles with a flexible battery incorporated into the back of the headband. The warmth of the rider's hood, he explained, would keep the battery from getting so cold that it stops producing current.

Students this month have been testing components in a plastic foam chamber that they built in the basement of the Art Institute's Downtown building. Temperatures in the chamber can reach minus 100 degrees. Next month, they expect to receive two special frames from Hanebrink. One will be outfitted in hopes of sending it to Antarctica for testing this season, and the other will be used for testing here, if snow cover ever arrives.

"Once they get on a bicycle and fall down a few times ... maybe they'll learn faster," Farrell said.

For more information on the Art Institute's Antarctic project, visit the Web site.

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