Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA, say they’ve developed a superior type of heat-extracting fluid that could dramatically improve the economics of producing renewable power from low-temperature geothermal resources.
Lab fellow Pete McGrail says the liquid is used to absorb the heat from hot water that’s been pumped from underground into a geothermal plant’s heat exchanger. The liquid can potentially boost the rate of heat capture by 20 to 30 percent. Researchers engineered proprietary nanomaterials made up of metals linked by organic molecules. They found that adding the nanomaterials to a fluid such as hexane or pentane significantly enhanced the heat-trapping properties of the liquid.
“The hope here is that by improving the efficiency as much as we think we can, a project can become economic at much shallower depths,” says McGrail. “You’d be able to deploy in what would now be considered marginal or uneconomic areas.”
There’s no shortage of geothermal energy under our feet. Drill deep enough and the heat is there. An MIT-led study from 2006 concluded that geothermal power systems have the potential to supply 100 gigawatts of power to the United States by 2050, but only if new drilling and rock-fracturing technologies and advanced plant designs emerge that could lower development costs.
Improved technologies are required because most economical geothermal plants today generate electricity by using steam or hot water directly from naturally formed high-temperature reservoirs, such as the Geysers field in California. The wells are relatively shallow, the water is 360 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, and the rock is porous enough to sufficiently circulate water. Tapping geothermal resources in less-ideal locations requires drilling deeper and forcing fractures in rock, both of which add immense cost. It also means making the most of lower-temperature heat resources, which is accomplished using binary-cycle plants that extract and repurpose the heat from underground hot water rather than using the hot water directly to spin a turbine.
In these plants, water pumped into an injection well absorbs heat from hot rock and is pumped back up through a separate extraction well at temperatures ranging from 150 degrees Fahrenheit to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot water is then passed through a heat exchanger, along with a fluid with a low boiling point. This fluid, which flows in its own closed loop within the plant, absorbs the heat from the water and flashes into vapor under high pressure. The vapor passes through a turbine, generating power, and is then condensed and recycled back through the loop.