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  • Writer's pictureThe Heat Beat

Drilling for Clean Energy:

Updated: Dec 1, 2019

New Initiative Positions Texas as Geothermal Energy Leader

With a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Cockrell School of Engineering is launching a unique initiative that aims to make The University of Texas at Austin a national hub for geothermal energy expertise and startups. The new Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization (GEO) will bring together engineers, researchers and entrepreneurs to develop technologies and launch companies to help advance the geothermal energy industry.

The organization, which is led by Jamie Beard and Bob Metcalfe of the Cockrell School’s Innovation Center, aims to leverage areas of excellence in geosystems and drilling engineering at UT to spur geothermal technology development and maturation. The effort will engage all groups with relevant expertise within the Cockrell School, as well as UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, College of Natural Sciences, Bureau of Economic Geology and the university’s more than 20 energy research centers. Beard and Metcalfe also plan to complement that expertise with the vast community of entrepreneurial talent across campus and in Austin. “It’s a straightforward concept. Drilling technically complex, high temperature and pressure wells is a core strength of the O&G industry. Let’s use all of that learning and expertise to drill for heat— tapping a CO2 free, clean energy source so vast that it could supply the world’s total energy usage many times over,” Beard said.

“We want to take advantage of Texas’ existing intellectual capital and leadership in geosciences and drilling to build the future of energy. By leveraging technologies and methodologies developed here over the past century and building upon them with new innovations, Texas can pioneer our clean energy future. And doing this won’t require a moonshot. We can make this happen within a decade.”

Geothermal energy is produced by converting heat emanating from the Earth’s core into electricity. Countries like Iceland, where there is heavy volcanic activity, have been utilizing geothermal energy for over a century. But they can access geothermal heat sources with relative ease because very high temperatures are encountered close to the surface. UT’s GEO is focused on developing and commercializing advanced high-temperature and high-pressure drilling tools that will enable geothermal energy production worldwide, which means developing drilling technologies that can economically reach depths of up to 30,000 feet and operate at temperatures exceeding 350 degrees Celsius. The goal is to enable production and use of baseload geothermal energy anywhere in the world.

Much of the expertise at UT needed to develop the necessary drilling tools, technologies and methodologies lies in the Cockrell School’s Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering.

“Geothermal energy offers an avenue for O&G companies to reinvent themselves as sustainable energy providers, while doing what they do best — drilling the most difficult wells in the world,” said Eric van Oort, a professor in the Hildebrand Department and a co-investigator in GEO. “Moreover, the oil and gas industry has a large amount of experience in drilling deep high-temperature, high-pressure wells that can be straightforwardly leveraged into deep geothermal drilling and well construction. This is not a blue-sky ambition. This can happen in the near term with incremental developments based on existing technologies in use today.”

Over the past few decades, other renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power, have been growing steadily in the U.S. Relatively low cost advances in technology have allowed producers in both

sectors to increase market share through economies of scale driving consumer prices down enough to compete with conventional energy suppliers, such as oil and gas. But breakthrough innovation in the geothermal space remains stagnant. Its proponents know what’s required to harness energy emanating from the Earth’s core, but developing the technologies needed to access widely available baseload geothermal energy will require significant capital investment in far greater amounts than what is currently being spent on R&D to advance geothermal. Because technological innovation follows capital investment, GEO is focused on fostering not just a technical talent pool to develop key technologies but also a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem so that those tools can make it to market to impact the industry quickly.

“We have to be sure that relevant technologies get field-tested and quickly commercialized,” said GEO’s principal investigator Bob Metcalfe. “The ‘valley of death’ that technologies experience when they emerge from research labs is deep in the context of drilling technologies, because the technologies need to be relatively mature before they can be field-tested. That makes startups and commercialization an essential part of our effort. We will create clusters of geothermal startups based on technologies developed at UT to infuse the industry with fast and impactful innovation that is mature enough for industry to immediately leverage.”

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