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Center Makes Cold Weather Tests Its Specialty

Houghton, Mich. — From automakers and component suppliers to snow-blower manufacturers and the U.S. military, they all test their equipment at Michigan Tech University’s remote Keweenaw Research Center.

A few miles from Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Keweenaw Research Center, or KRC, supports wolves, bears, coyotes, engineers visiting from around the world, professors and students from Tech, and 30 to 50 local residents year-round.

Winter is the high season. Clients use the KRC’s 500 acres of trails, skid pads, straightaways, hills, ice rinks and multi-surface traction pads 12 hours or more a day. Maintenance crews work through the night, grooming all 120 lane-miles of driving surface. Others compact overnight snow for an even, predictable surface each morning, run water pumps to flood and freeze the ice rinks, and drive a broom truck that sweeps snow off the ice.

The military is the main customer in the summer, using the rugged hills and forests to test vehicles and technologies. The center played a key role in developing night vision. Chrysler Defense field-tested early designs for the M-1 Abrams tank at the site in the late 1970s.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened shop there in 1953. They had hired a pair of Michigan Tech students to measure the climate at various spots on the Keweenaw Peninsula for research to catch up with the Soviet military, which could draw on centuries of experience in arctic conditions.

The Army worked closely with Michigan Tech from the start. It turned the center over to the university in the 1960s. Michigan Tech began working with private companies in the 1970s, when Outboard Marine began testing snowmobiles. Michelin was the first company in the auto industry to use the facility for non-military work. It had been testing snow tires on public roads across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before moving to KRC for a safer and more controlled environment.

Researchers from KRC have worked around the world, including learning how to build and maintain aircraft runways in Antarctica.

Not all the center’s work has paid off. A couple of deep-frozen mistakes include the marvelously named Ice Pavement Bond Disbonding program, which experimented with sandblasting ice off interstate highways, and a giant microwave to break highway ice into tiny chips. Neither made it to commercial use. Of course, people probably thought that about night vision in 1982.