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The answer to the world’s energy needs may have been under our feet all this time, according to Jefferson Tester, professor of chemical engineering at the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. Tester says heat generated deep within the earth by the decay of naturally occurring isotopes has the potential to supply a tremendous amount of power – thousands of times more than we now consume each year.

So far, we’ve been able to harvest only a tiny fraction of geothermal energy resources, taking advantage of places where local geology brings hot water and steam near the surface, such as in Iceland or California, where such phenomena have long been used to produce electricity. But new oil-field stimulation technology, developed for extracting oil from sources such as shale, makes it possible to harvest much more of this energy by allowing engineers to create artificial geothermal reservoirs many kilometers underground.

Tester calls it ”universal geothermal” energy because the reservoirs could be located wherever they’re needed, such as near power-hungry cities worldwide.

Technology Review spoke with Tester about the potential of universal geothermal energy and what it will take to make it a reality.

Technology Review: How much geothermal energy could be harvested?

Jefferson Tester: The figure for the whole world is on the order of 100 million exojoules or quads [a quad is one quadrillion BTUs]. This is the part that would be useable. We now use worldwide just over 400 exojoules per year. So you do the math, and you know you’ve got a very big source of energy.

How much of that massive resource base could we usefully extract? Imagine that only a fraction of a percent comes out. It’s still big. A tenth of a percent is 100,000 quads. You have access to a tremendous amount of stored energy. And assessment studies have shown that this is thousands of times in excess of the amount of energy we consume per-year in the country. The trick is to get it out of the ground economically and efficiently and to do it in an environmentally sustainable manner. That’s what a lot of the field efforts have focused on.

TR: We do use some geothermal today, don’t we?

JT: In some cases nature has provided a means for extracting stored thermal energy. We have many good examples. The Geysers field in California is the largest geothermal field in the world – it’s been in production for over 40 years and produces high-quality steam that can readily be converted into electric power, and it’s one of the rarities nature-wise in terms of what we have worldwide. In the mineral vernacular they would be regarded as sort of high-grade gold mines.

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