Power from down under

Jan 26, 2010 by David L. Chandler
Graphic: Christine Daniloff

Grants recently awarded to MIT researchers by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) could help to pave the way for a method of generating electricity that produces no greenhouse gas emissions, and that could become a major contributor to meeting the world’s energy needs.

Most energy analysts agree that geothermal energy — tapping the heat of bedrock deep underground to generate electricity — has enormous potential because it is available all the time, almost anywhere on Earth, and there is enough of it available, in theory, to supply all of the world’s energy needs for many centuries. But there are still some unanswered questions about it that require further research. DoE last year awarded $336 million in grants to help resolve the remaining uncertainties, and three of those grants, totaling more than $2 million, went to MIT researchers.

Everywhere on Earth, a few miles below the surface, the bedrock is hot, and the deeper you go the hotter it gets. In some places, water heated by this hot rock comes naturally to the surface or close to it, where it can be easily tapped to drive a and generate electricity.

But where naturally heated water is not available at or near the surface, this process can be recreated by drilling one very deep well to inject water into the ground, and another well nearby to pump that water back to the surface after it has been heated by passing through cracks in the hot rock. Such systems are known as Engineered Geothermal Systems, or EGS.

A 2006 report by an 18-member team led by MIT Professor Jefferson Tester (now emeritus, and working at Cornell University) found that more than 2,000 times the total annual of the United States could be supplied, using existing technology, from EGS systems, and perhaps 10 times as much with improved technology.

Tracking cracks

Herbert Einstein, professor of civil and environmental engineering, was the recipient of one of the new DoE grants. Einstein studies fracturing in rocks, which is crucial in creating a new EGS site: After drilling the necessary wells, water must be pumped into one of them under very high pressure to create a network of fractures in the deep rock to allow the water to move from the injection well to the extraction well. But exactly how that process works at different depths and in different types of rock is not yet well understood.

Einstein is developing computer programs that can aid in the evaluation of geothermal sites, assessing both the potential power output and any potential risks, such as the triggering of seismic activity. Such triggering has already resulted in the premature closing two years ago of one test installation, in Basel, Switzerland, after some minor earthquakes (the largest being magnitude 3.4) were felt in the area.

The planned software is based on programs Einstein has developed to assess proposed tunnel sites and landslide risks. “What these decision tools do is allow you to consider the uncertainties, of which there are a lot,” he says.

As is the case with tunnel construction, a great deal of the uncertainty with EGS has to do with the kind of rock encountered in the drilling and how that rock will fracture under pressure. Einstein’s software will be adapted to address the higher pressures encountered in the very deep boreholes needed for geothermal fields.

Einstein suggests that the risks from seismic triggering are largely sociological, because the events seen so far, at least, are too small to produce any real damage.

“I think that’s a red herring,” agrees Professor of Geophysics M. Nafi Toksoz, another DoE geothermal grant recipient, referring to the issue of induced earthquakes. “We know that every time we drill into the Earth, we alter the state of the stress in the rock.” As a result, small earthquakes do occur regularly near oil and gas wells, deep mine shafts for coal or minerals, and even from the pressure of water when a reservoir fills up behind a new dam. “Wherever there are existing faults, they will induce mostly minor quakes.”

Toksoz’s grant (with research scientists Michael Fehler and Haijian Zhang of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences as collaborators) will fund research at a test EGS installations in Utah, Nevada and California to develop ways of detecting and analyzing the fractures that form in the deep rock and how water actually flows through them.

“Enhanced or Engineered Geothermal Systems (EGS) can be a enormous contributor to the world’s renewable energy portfolio,” says Curt Robinson, executive director of the Geothermal Resources Council in Davis, Calif., a nonprofit educational group. He says EGS could play a significant role in meeting energy needs if there are better ways of analyzing potential sites to improve the odds of success; government policies to create a favorable business climate for investors; and better technologies for identifying good sites and for lower-cost drilling under high-temperature conditions.

Einstein says geothermal electricity has the potential to take the place of essentially all stationary (that is, not transportation-related) power sources. “Basically, you could replace everything that’s around,” including the “baseload” power plants that can operate at any time, unlike sources such as solar or wind power. “So that’s certainly very promising,” he says. “It’s not completely infinite, but for all practical purposes it is.”

Probing underground

One of the remaining questions in practice is whether an EGS plant will lose efficiency over time, as minerals carried by the water begin to clog up the cracks in the deep rock. While test plants have been operated in the United States and elsewhere for limited amounts of time, there has not yet been such a plant that has operated over a span of years, so “we don’t know how long these things will work at their maximum output,” Einstein says, and if their performance begins to drop, “can you restimulate the well?” to get it back to original levels. These questions require further research.

Seismologist Fehler, recipient of another of the DoE grants, uses small earthquakes as a tool: Like ultrasound used to get images inside the body, the natural vibrations from small earthquakes can be used as a way to probe the subsurface to understand how water is moving deep below the ground. “It’s a remote-sensing tool,” he says.

This is similar to a method used in oil exploration, where the subsurface is analyzed by measuring the way vibrations from explosions or surface “thumpers” are distributed through the soil and rock below. An array of microphones or micro-seismometers picks up the vibrations at various points, and computers then reconstruct an image of the subsurface from the relative timing of the vibrations from the source to the receiver.

At most geothermal installations built so far, Fehler says, earthquakes have been so small that “you can record them, but you don’t feel anything at the surface.” But seismic triggering is an issue because it has affected companies’ ability to continue operations because of social, economic and political factors, he says. “We have to figure out how to try to control it,” he says, mostly by choosing sites carefully, away from population centers. The U.S. Department of is holding a workshop on that question in February.

The basic principles have been demonstrated. “We know it can be done,” Toksoz says. “But quite a lot of technology still needs to be proven in terms of commercial feasibility.” The remaining questions are essentially economic and engineering ones related to the costs and difficulties of deep drilling, not basic technology, he says.

Explore further: Researchers achieve 'holy grail' of battery design: A stable lithium anode

Related Stories

MIT releases major report on geothermal energy

Jan 22, 2007

A comprehensive new MIT-led study of the potential for geothermal energy within the United States has found that mining the huge amounts of heat that reside as stored thermal energy in the Earth's hard rock crust could supply ...

The Inexhaustible Energy Source Beneath Our Feet

May 24, 2004

According to the expert Willy Gehrer, the environmentally friendly generation of electricity from geothermal sources is going to play an important role in the future of energy production. “I’m convinced that ...

Making geothermal more productive

Sep 08, 2009

University of Utah researchers will inject cool water and pressurized water into a "dry" geothermal well during a five-year, $10.2 million study aimed at boosting the productivity of geothermal power plants ...

Rocks under High Water Pressure

Aug 09, 2007

Today, Thursday the 9th of August 2007, the GFZ Potsdam, Germany's National Lab for Geosciences is starting a new series of experiments at the geothermal research site Gross Schönebeck.

Researchers use sound to search for gas, oil

Sep 07, 2006

Just as doctors use ultrasound to image internal organs and unborn babies, MIT Earth Resources Laboratory researchers listen to the echoing language of rocks to map what's going on tens of thousands of feet below the Earth's ...

Recommended for you

Economical and agile offshore construction ship

Jul 25, 2014

Siemens is currently installing the power supply and propulsion systems into a new multi-purpose offshore construction ship for Toisa Ltd. The ship, which is being built by the Korean company Hyundai Heavy ...

User comments : 11

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
Why are fractures required, is it not possible at these depths to use vertical heat exchangers?
5 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2010
Fracturing is required to cheaply increase the surface area for heat transfer. This also increases to volume of rock that is accessible, hence the quantity of energy a single well can extract.
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
Explained simply the finding of fractures is meant to fine conduits for the water to travel from one well to another. Just drill a well at one end of a found fracture and another at the other end of the fracture.
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
this reminds me a video game called total annihilation -- you get to build 'moho mines' its short for mohorovicic discontinuity its a great concept except for our lack of knowledge on how creating a heat exchange oh any magnitude effects the stress in the underlying layers -- sure its rock and been under pressure for millions of years but we are gonna create a steam vent in the middle where heat can easily be released - and since everything goes to the lowest energy state naturally this would become a natural heat sink for the area -- creation of new fault lines is only the beginning if the surround crust becomes brittle since its started to cool off... earthquakes and even volcano's are likely.

I would love to see this technology but lets do it some place relatively safe -- like the middle of the Gobi desert , or the Sahara
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
Cracks? You want cracks? This seems a good application of nukes for creating cavities or reservoirs which could be filled with a conductive material with exchangers run through it, eliminating dissolved mineral contamination. Potential sites are now limited by the presence of suitable existing materials; nukes would provide much more freedom of placement. See Operation Plowshare-
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
A particuliarly interesting test in the program- Project Gnome- produced a habitable space far below the surface: http://en.wikiped...ct_GNOME
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
Yellowstone is the perfect power plant, and it's off limits, being a national park and all...

However, the true modern hotspot may be slightly to the east of the park now, so they could drill there instead.
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
If you set your geothermal power plant at a fossil impact site, you get a very fractured rock zone the water can pass through. In Sweden, where the glaciers have scraped away the sediment hiding very old impact sites, such sites are studied for drilling holes for geothermal heating. The problem is that -so far- the drilling cost is too high.
USA should have just as many fossil impact sites per area unit as Sweden, but most of the country is covered by thick sediments that hide the older craters. BTW, the Chesapeake bay started as a crater, so maybe you can try heating DC with geothermal energy once the drilling technology has advanced enough to bring down the cost.
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
Yellowstone is the perfect power plant

I'd go for the midatlantic ridge, myself. Situate turbines above black smokers and have them produce electricity. Feed the lines to a central platform where you create hydrogen through hydrolysis. Load it on a tanker. Drive to any port and reconvert it for use in the energy grid.

Sure it's a bit complicated/lossy, but it does not require drilling, can be set up over an immense area with little engineering know-how (the atlantic ridge is pretty long and contains plenty hotspots) - and if you drive the tankers with hydrogen motors then the whole system is emission free (and you don't have to worry about earthquakes, permits, eco-hysteria, ... ).
not rated yet Jan 31, 2010
It's about time we put our resources into developing this source of power. We have all been standing on a perfectly clean unlimited energy source while we waste money on fusion and atomic energy. The idea that there is enough energy for a few centuries seems like a massive understatement to me, there should be enough energy there to supply us for a quite a few million years, enough for us to become almost the only living thing on the planet if we choose to be that selfish and stupid. Enough to give us the time to terraform Mars and populate the rest of the inhabitable planets in this galaxy if we are smart.
not rated yet Jan 31, 2010
The biggest, and probably only hurdle to overcome is politics. The petroleum companies are not going to roll over and play dead until they've milked the economy for every penny they can. Playing on fear of earthquakes, pollution, nuclear accidents, economics and the like, they have stifled research not under their control and hidden results that showed progress in any other field. All the progress that was made in the late 70's and early 80's was buried and is now being done all over again.