Geothermal energy production in Cornwall- Is it viable?

Today marks the start of drilling for what may become the first deep geothermal power plant in the UK. Falmouth based firm Geothermal Engineering are drilling two wells, 2.8 miles (4.5km) and 1.5 miles (2.5km), into granite near Redruth, Cornwall.

Cold water will be pumped down to the hot rocks where the temperature is up to 200C (390F). Hot water will be brought to the surface. Steam from the heated water will drive turbines producing electricity. If this pilot project is successful it could pave the way for similar power production in the UK.

Professor Joe Quarini from the department of Mechanical Engineering shared his thoughts on the project:

Professor Joe Quarini talks to Jon Kay from the BBC

“This is a good and exciting project from an engineering perspective. Not only will it bring jobs and expertise to Cornwall, but we’re going to learn a lot about engineering as the work progresses. We’ve seen similar, but ‘easier’ projects work successfully in New Zealand, Iceland and Italy. There are some technical questions that will be answered during this pilot, like, whether there are significant fouling issues associated with leaching out soluble minerals from the underground structures, what proportion of the water pumped into the ground actually comes back and whether and at what rate the heat deposits are depleted.

The answer to these questions will dictate the long-term viability of geothermal energy production in the UK. Cornwall is unique, it has heat-producing granite rocks with the highest energy density in the UK. In terms of absolute sums, electrical power production from geothermal is likely to be a small proportion of the Nation’s needs; it best location will be Cornwall. That said, Engineering is a global discipline, so it’s great for our young engineers to get the opportunity to see projects like this in action. We know that young people are really interested in green energy and sustainability so hopefully this will get more young people interested in Engineering as a subject.

Whilst the project excites me in terms of Engineering, I’m less confident about the long-term economic viability of geothermal energy in the UK. When the engineering costs are accounted for, geothermal energy isn’t the cheapest source of power, but if we’re serious about decarbonising our economy then it’s a choice that we, as a society, can make. That’s where funders like the EU and the Government come in to help subsidise projects like this one. My worry is that when those sources of funding aren’t available this won’t be a very attractive prospect to private investors. I’d love to be proved wrong on this though!”

Hear Joe in conversation on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme at 1:21

Nine ways our engineers are building a greener world

It’s Green Britain Week this week. While debate rages between environmental campaigners and those wandering the corridors of power, engineers are ever pragmatic and practical. Our researchers are working on a range of technological advances that will reduce the carbon in our atmosphere.

Here’s nine of our projects:

  1. Wind power: Harnessing wind power will be a key component of a greener energy mix. In partnership with Offshore Renewable Energy, the Wind Blade Research Hub is pushing the boundaries of current technology to produce a 13MW turbine. They are working on blades that will be 100m long, requiring new designs, materials and manufacturing processes. The world-leading expertise of the Bristol Composites Institute (ACCIS) is crucial in delivering this and other sustainable structures.
  2. Offshore wind and tidal lagoons: In another initiative to tap into the UK’s potential for offshore wind and tidal energy, a proposed tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay could provide electricity for more than 155,000 homes. It will take a solution that is affordable and scaleable to turn this idea into a reality. Researchers from Bristol and Plymouth Universities are part of a project to design and develop a prototype.
  3. Solar Cells: Solar energy is getting ever-more affordable. A £2 million grant from the EPSRC has funded work to develop new low-cost photo-voltaic materials. Researchers from the Bristol Electrochemistry Group’s PV Team are looking to replace elements such as gallium, indium, cadmium and tellurium which are rare, expensive to extract and toxic.
  4. Electric Vehicles: The move away from petrol/diesel and towards low carbon hybrid/fully electric vehicles depends on the availability of compact, highly efficient engines. The Electrical Energy Management Group are innovating and testing solutions. Their industrial collaboration on high performance electro-mechanical drives is important for the traction, steering and road handling of the cars of the future.
  5. Energy Storage: If the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, how can we store all that free energy? This question is being addressed by researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Surrey as part of self-funded company Superdielectrics Ltd. They have discovered new hydrophilic materials, like those used in contact lenses, that could rival the storage capacity of traditional batteries and charge much faster. Rolls-Royce recently signed a collaboration agreement with Superdielectrics, highlighting the keenness of industry to find new solutions.
  6. Microgrids: Ditching fossil fuels and halting deforestation can’t happen unless there’s a sustainable energy alternative. It’s estimated that 1.2bn people across the world don’t have access to electricity. By working with NGOs, local authorities and residents in rural areas, researchers from the Electrical Energy Management Group are designing a micro-grid system, intended for remote communities. It could generate enough power for 250 homes, using wind, solar and micro-hydro energy. A scaleable modular design means extra units can be added as and when.
  7. Water management: Climate change is having an impact on our water cycle with flood patterns already changing. The way we manage water resources will be increasingly key to mitigate natural disasters and provide clean drinking water to a growing population. The Water and Environmental Engineering group brings together engineers and scientists, taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the complex issues raised through modelling, measuring and prediction.
  8. Nuclear: Although controversial, nuclear energy will be part of the low carbon energy picture for the foreseeable future. The South West Nuclear Hub brings together academics from numerous disciplines. Their research ensures that nuclear systems are safe, reliable and efficient. Also focusing on safety, the department of Civil Engineering has been exploring the seismic integrity of nuclear reactors using the University’s impressive earthquake shaking table. The Plex project was one of the most complex shaking table experiments ever attempted anywhere in the world.
  9. Efficient Aircraft: Aviation is a major contributor to global CO2 emissions, burning more fossil fuels per passenger than any other form of transport. The Advanced Simulation and Modelling of Virtual Systems (ASiMoV) partnership aims to produce a jet engine simulation so accurate that designs can be signed off by the civil aviation authorities pre-production. It is hoped that by modelling the physical effects of thermo-mechanics, electromagnetics and computational fluid dynamics, more cost effective and energy-efficient engines will get off the ground.