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SMU’S GEOTHERMAL LABORATORY:
RESEARCHING CLEAN ENERGY BENEATH OUR FEET

SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory is renowned national resource for the development of clean, green energy from the Earth’s heat.


The first Google.Org-funded geothermal mapping report confirms vast coast-to-coast clean energy source. Read more.

Historically, geothermal development has been restricted to areas with substantial tectonic activity or volcanism, such as The Geysers field in California.  But sophisticated mapping of geothermal resources directed by David Blackwell, SMU’s Hamilton professor of Geothermal Studies, and Maria Richards, director of SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory, makes it clear that vast geothermal resources reachable through current technology could replace and multiply the levels of energy currently produced in the United States  - mostly by coal-fired power plants.

Three recent technological developments are feeding increased geothermal development in areas with little or no tectonic activity or volcanism:

  • Low Temperature Hydrothermal – Energy is produced from subsurface areas with naturally occurring high fluid volumes at temperatures ranging from less than boiling to 300F (150C). This approach is producing energy in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah.
      
  • Geopressure and Coproduced Fluids Geothermal – Oil and/or natural gas are produced together with electricity generated from hot geothermal fluids drawn from the same well. Systems are installed or being installed in Wyoming, North Dakota, Utah, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
      
  • Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) – Subsurface areas with low fluid content but high temperatures are “enhanced” with injection of fluid and other reservoir engineering techniques. EGS resources are typically deeper than hydrothermal resources and represent the largest share of total geothermal resources capable of supporting larger capacity power plants.

SMU researchers have completed a national mapping project backed by Google.org that makes it possible to access reliable geothermal data (heat flow and temperature-at-depth information) culled from oil and gas development all over the country.  Their mapping project already has determined that there is potential for more electric generation from geothermal sources in West Virginia than is currently being produced by the state's mostly coal-fired generation plants.

This is a national energy story with a strong Texas base: Even before SMU researchers completed their latest map, an assessment they produced for the Texas State Energy Conservation Office confirmed the existence of a vast, geothermal zone with enough heat to supply Texas with clean, renewable, affordable electricity for hundreds of years. 

SMU's Geothermal Lab hosted a conference in mid-June 2011 aimed at convincing oil and gas producers to use the technology and resources they already have to develop geothermal production. Many of the same technologies that oil and gas companies pioneered for retrieving natural gas from shale can be used to create steam from the hot “dry” rocks found underneath that shale.

“Oil and gas related companies have an inherent advantage in developing geothermal technology,” said Bruce Bullock, the director of SMU’s Maguire Energy Institute, whose remarks opened the conference. “The heat already is being generated in the form of produced waters associated with oil and gas production.  Tapping that heat for electricity production (that can be sold at a profit) can improve the economic life of projects.  Oil and gas companies possess the skill sets, engineering know how, and existing sources of thermal energy to develop significant amounts of geothermal energy.”

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