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John O | August 2017

Berkeley Lab leading multimillion-dollar geothermal energy project

the u.s. department of energy (doe) lawrence berkeley national laboratory announced that it will be leading a new, multimillion-dollar energy research project, egs collab, to commercialize enhanced geothermal systems (egs), which have the potential to power 100 million homes in the u.s, according to a report on the lab website.


berkeley lab scientist tim kneafsey demonstrates how he places rock samples, from
the brady geothermal field in nevada, into a stress permeability apparatus.
(marilyn chung/berkeley lab)


the project, which includes seven other doe labs and six universities, is expected to cost $9 million and is funded by the doe geothermal technologies office (gto). the project will study and model rock fractures at the sanford underground research facility (surf) in south dakota, where fractures networks will be created in crystalline rock that is 1,500 meters below the surface.


the goal for researchers is to get a higher resolution look at the fractures to better understand fluid flow through egs. with a greater understanding of how the process works, scientists hope to tap into the geothermal energy that lies dormant below ground.


the report explained, “in geothermal systems, heat acquired from water circulating in rock fractures deep in the earth’s crust is extracted for conversion to electricity. conventional geothermal technology is possible only in locations with particular geological characteristics, either near active volcanic centers or in places with a very high temperature gradient, such as much of nevada and parts of the western united states.”


it added, “these locations have the three components essential to extracting geothermal energy—heat, fluid, and permeability, a measure of how easily fluid can circulate through the rock’s fractures, picking up heat as it moves.”


egs allow for the engineering of fracture networks to avoid the limitations of standard geothermal systems. the article stated, “egs could eventually provide more than 100 gigawatts (gw) of economically viable electric generating capacity in the continental united states, a huge increase over the current geothermal capacity of 3.5 gw.”


according to the doe, “this initiative will address critical and fundamental barriers to egs advancement by facilitating direct collaboration between the geothermal reservoir modeling community, experimentalists, and geophysicists in developing and implementing well-field characterization and development, monitoring, and stimulation methods.”


the egs collab project is part of a larger geothermal initiative from the doe called forge (frontier observatory for research in geothermal energy). this project is a “dedicated site where scientists and engineers will be able to develop, test, and accelerate breakthroughs in enhanced geothermal system (egs) technologies and techniques.”


there are currently two forge sites, one in nevada led by sandia national laboratory and the other in utah led by the university of utah. according to berkeley lab, “forge r&d activities will include innovative drilling techniques, reservoir stimulation techniques, and well connectivity and flow-testing efforts. the site will also require continuous monitoring of geophysical and geochemical signals.”


as the report noted, among other activities, “scientists will deploy a dense array of sensors to monitor and understand micro-seismicity associated with the fracturing. they will also use electrical imaging and tracer techniques to predict heat transfer in 10 meter-scale fractures and validate the predictions experimentally.”

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