Geothermal's Big Break

A safer, and cheaper, form of geothermal energy is on the horizon—a renewable energy source in abundance in the U.S.

Geothermal energy usually gets relegated to the back burner in a myriad of alternative energy choices. In the past few years, we've seen hybrid cars become trendy, ethanol's fate rise and then fall, and a rather heated debate on the merits of clean coal. Now, it seems, geothermal energy may be emerging as practical source of clean energy. Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are making leaps and bounds on extracting energy from low-temperature geothermal sources. The lab is receiving $1.2 million as a part of the Department of Energy grants for renewable energy.

The new method, which is safer and more economically feasible than previous procedures, would generate electricity with virtually no pollution. "By the end of the calendar year, we plan to have a functioning bench-top prototype generating electricity," said Pete McGrail, a scientist working on the project. "If successful, enhanced geothermal systems like this could become an important energy source."

The method is improved thanks to nano-structured metal-organic heat carriers. When added to the normal conversion process, these materials improve energy generation nearly to that of a conventional steam cycle. "Some novel research on nanomaterials used to capture carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels actually lead us to this discovery," McGrail added. "Scientific breakthroughs can come from some very unintuitive connections."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology performed an analysis of new geothermal systems and found that they could supply one-tenth of U.S.-generated electricity by 2050—not an insignificant amount considering the controversy surrounding coal power plants. The U.S. houses an abundance of areas suitable for geothermal power generation systems, a boon to future energy independence. Right now, scientists are still focused on getting to the breakthrough point where geothermal energy becomes economically feasible.

SOURCE: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory