At the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center's Doriot Climatic Chamber, temperatures hit an all-time low during testing of some large circuit breakers for a private company during the week of Jan. 28. The old record was -74 degrees.
So you think this has been a tough winter? Try handling 78 degrees below zero.
That is how far the mercury dipped in one special spot in Natick last month.
At the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center's Doriot Climatic Chamber, temperatures hit an all-time low there during testing of some large circuit breakers for a private company during the week of Jan. 28. The old Natick record was -74 degrees.
The arctic climate chamber was built to create freezing conditions down to -70 but recent improvements have made it even more extreme.
``Those real extreme temperatures are usually used for equipment testing,'' said Natick Labs spokesman Jerry Whitaker. ``I suppose for a minute or two you could go in there and adjust equipment, but it's not an environment where you'd want to spend any time.''
At slightly more hospitable temperatures, the chambers are used to for human testing of military clothing and other equipment.
A Mount Pleasant, Pa., company called ABB Inc. rented the chamber for a week to test large, high voltage circuit breakers that could be used in electric utility and industrial manufacturing in places like northern China, Canada or anywhere where temperatures would be 50 below zero with wind.
The Labs chamber can also produce winds up to 40 mph during the cold.
According to a press release from the Labs, the circuit breakers tested are a vital piece of equipment because if they fail in a power substation it could shut down power for an entire section of a city.
A 1994 federal law allows private contractors to use government facilities at cost.
Depending on how cold the testers need it, Whitaker said the cost of using the arctic chamber is $2,000 to $3,000 a day.
The arctic tunnel can simulate temperatures up to 120 degrees, with rainfall rates of 4 inches an hour and relative humidity of 10 percent to 90 percent.
The arctic chamber is one of two special units at the Doriot Climatic Chambers. The tropic wind tunnel can boost temperatures to 165 degrees and simulate strong sunlight with 250 watt light bulbs.
The new record low in the chamber is far colder than anything experienced in the state. The record low for Boston is -18, set on Feb. 9, 1934. Chester, Mass., hit -35 on Jan. 12, 1981.
The coldest temperature on Earth? That would be Vostok, a Russian research base in Antarctica which plummeted to -129 degrees on July 21, 1983.
There are large freezer rooms on the market that hit much lower temperatures than the Natick test chamber.
The coldest temperature ever recorded was by a team of MIT scientists that cooled sodium gas suspended in a magnetic field to half-a-billionth of a degree above absolute zero (-459.67 degrees).
Rob Haneisen can be reached at email@example.com or 508-626-3882.