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Posted: May 07, 2013
Sparking off research into deep geothermal energy
(Nanowerk News) ETH Zurich is to receive ten million Swiss francs from the Werner Siemens Foundation to establish a chair in deep geothermal energy. This will enable ETH Zurich to fulfil its aim of launching an initiative in this promising energy technology without delay.
Deep geothermal energy is regarded as a very promising technology, as it would allow previously unused heat energy from the ground to be tapped. ETH Zurich had decided some time ago to create two chairs in deep geothermal energy underlining its desire to play an active part in shaping Switzerland’s future energy landscape. With a donation of ten million Swiss francs to the ETH Zurich Foundation from the Werner Siemens Foundation, ETH Zurich can take firm steps to press ahead with its geothermal energy strategy by appointing its first chair.
“The very generous donation from the Werner Siemens Foundation will strengthen ETH Zurich’s work on deep geothermal energy at just the right time,” says Ralph Eichler, President of ETH Zurich “We must now make every effort to tackle the fundamental research for this form of geothermal energy quickly if we want it to deliver tangible benefits in ten to twenty years’ time.” The appointment process for the new chair in geo-energy has already begun. The future chair will be based in the Department of Earth Sciences.
Derrick of a deep geothermal project in France: ETH Zurich drives research and development of this promising form of energy and heat generation forward with a new professor. (Photo: Alain Bachellier / flickr.com)
Sending an Important Signal
The research and development of geothermal energy is a key component of the federal government’s energy strategy to ensure that, in the future, more and more electricity and heat will come from renewable energy sources. The cantons and the business world also have a vital interest in this form of energy generation. “We are setting the path for future technological breakthroughs in an area that could have central importance for the Swiss economy,” explains Ludwig Scheidegger, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Werner Siemens Foundation.
No household in Switzerland gets its electricity from a deep geothermal power station as yet. This form of energy is regarded as almost inexhaustible and has enormous potential. However, developing it for electricity production and for use in district heating remains a big challenge. Research is needed, among other things, into the geology of the bedrock from which the heat is to be extracted. However, technical problems must also be solved, such as developing suitable drilling techniques and the artificial fissuring of the bedrock.
Sounding Out Opportunities and Risks
For the time being, the main need is for research and demonstration facilities to determine the potential of deep geothermal energy in specific terms and make reliable forecasts for the future. Ralph Eichler believes that it will take a concerted effort by the government agencies involved and by researchers and the business world in order to raise up the energy hoard slumbering deep within the earth. He says that ETH Zurich will play its part by supplying the fundamental knowledge, innovative processes and the skilled personnel needed to construct and operate facilities of this kind in the future.
Domenico Giardini, Professor of Seismology and Geodynamics and ETH Zurich’s delegate for deep geothermal energy, is equally delighted by the move to boost this highly promising area of research. He stresses the need for accurate research into innovative exploration techniques, monitoring instruments and the possible risks involved in deep geothermal energy and other geo-energies, so as to increase public trust in this technology. A new chair is the only way to achieve these aims.
Deep geothermal energy
Deep geothermal energy exploits the high temperatures in crystalline bedrocks four to six kilometers below the earth’s surface. An artificially generated water cycle brings the heat to the surface of the earth to produce electricity and heat. The process involves drilling down into this layer of rock and fissuring it under high pressure to enable the water that is fed down into the rock to flow through it and thus be heated up to 200°C. Water already present in the rock can also be used. The heated water is carried back to the surface through a second borehole and is used for the continuous generation of electricity and to produce heat. This technology is still in its infancy in Switzerland and internationally. A deep geothermal borehole in the city of Basel was abandoned due to earthquakes. An experiment is currently under way near St. Gallen and in Lavey-les-Bains. Geothermal heat offers huge potential. One advantage of this form of energy is that it is regular and also controllable. More than 2,500 gigawatt hours (GWh) of geothermal energy were extracted in Switzerland in 2011, with over three-quarters of this originating from facilities using geothermal heat probes. Due to the energy’s high potential, experts expect around a dozen deep geothermal power stations to spring up by 2030, producing 800 GWh of electricity.