Dr. David Blackwell, Hamilton Professor, Geological Sciences Department
Dr. Maria Richards, Researcher, Geothermal Laboratory Coordinator
In the discussion of greener energy resources, wind and solar are the media darlings, but geothermal deserves a place at the table – perhaps even at the head of the table, say SMU's geothermal researchers.
Professor David Blackwell, who earned his Bachelor's in geology and mathematics from SMU in 1963, and his Master's and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1965 and 1967 respectively, has been focused on the thermal state of the Earth's lithosphere (the solid crust and upper mantle) for his entire 40-year career.
Maria Richards earned her Bachelor's in physical geography from Michigan State University in 1986 and her Master's in physical geography from the University of Tennessee in 1991. Geographers tend to look at the surface of the Earth and geologists tend to look below the surface, but when Blackwell and Richards met at a basketball game, the overlap seemed close enough.
Richards joined Blackwell's team, and the two have been doing their best to research and promote geothermal as a cost-effective, clean and green method of energy production ever since.
In a nutshell, high-temperature geothermal energy production involves drilling into the earth to reach an area of high-temperature water at 300 degrees Fahrenheit or above. The steam released from the layer is tapped to drive turbines. In the United States, most of the areas that have sufficiently high-temperature water for a traditional geothermal power plant are located in the western states. The largest geothermal power plant in the U.S. is at The Geysers steam field in Santa Rosa, Calif.
But newer "binary" geothermal technology, which uses underground water to heat a secondary fluid that becomes a gas at lower temperature than the 212 degrees at which water boils, means geothermal power can be developed in other regions of the country, including Texas, says Richards.
One of the biggest obstacles to geothermal energy has been the high cost of drilling deep into the earth to reach high-temperature water, but Richards says oil and gas wells that have gone dry (water is coming out instead of oil) can be repurposed as geothermal wells at a relatively low cost.
In 2004, a geothermal map of the United States that Blackwell and Richards produced was published by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. There are several "hot spots" in Texas that have good potential for geothermal energy production, prime among these being the Gulf Coast region, says Richards.
This summer, SMU's Geothermal Lab received a $489,000 grant from Google to enhance the geothermal resources map.
In June, SMU's Geothermal Lab hosted a Geothermal Energy Utilization conference. With the rise in price of fossil fuels, says Richards, geothermal energy's time is coming. Geothermal is green and, unlike wind and solar, that are intermittent, it's continual. "The Earth never stops heating," says Richards.