‘Borehole of opportunity’ attracts international scientists

Scientists and engineers from around the world gathered in Cornell’s Snee Hall, Jan. 8-10, to design experiments that could be incorporated into the university’s proposal to dig a 2.5-mile-deep borehole as part of an enhanced geothermal energy system.

About 35 researchers traveled to campus for the workshop, where they were joined by about 20 Cornell faculty members, students and facilities professionals. The workshop was sponsored by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, a nonprofit organization that promotes subterranean investigations.

Scientific access to deep continental boreholes is uncommon, as the holes are mostly dug by industry, which generally does not share access or data. Access is critical to learning about rock mechanics, hydrogeology, seismology, microbiology and other information about the planet.

Cornell is proposing a borehole on campus property to serve as a test well for Earth Source Heat, an enhanced geothermal system that would use the Earth’s thermal energy to heat most of the buildings on campus.

The test well would help inform the design of the system, but also serve as a “borehole of opportunity,” as some workshop attendees called it – the opportunity to learn more about the subsurface.

“By studying the processes and conditions that operate here, there is excitement about the potential for showcasing how sustainable energy solutions can be utilized in a lot of areas in the U.S. Northeast and globally.”

Patrick Fulton

“The geology beneath central New York is old, relatively cold and far from a tectonic plate boundary, which is similar to a large part of the continents,” said Patrick Fulton, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and a member of the workshop’s organizing committee. “By studying the processes and conditions that operate here, there is excitement about the potential for showcasing how sustainable energy solutions can be utilized in a lot of areas in the U.S. Northeast and globally.”

Many of the experiments conceptualized at the workshop aim to improve understanding of the conditions that dictate how fluids flow through deep sedimentary and metamorphic rock. Fluid mechanics is an important aspect of the Earth Source Heat system, which would extract the Earth’s heat by circulating water through a network of underground pores and crevasses, raising the temperature of the water to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit before it is brought to the surface.

Extensive discussion focused on the opportunities to learn about the mechanical interactions of deep rocks with stresses and strains in the subsurface. The relative lack of seismic activity in the Ithaca area means there is rarely any data that would offer insights into the subsurface, according to Terry Jordan, the J. Preston Levis Professor of Engineering and leader of the workshop’s organizing committee.

“The rock consists of solid minerals, natural discontinuities and fluids in small pore spaces,” Jordan said. “What are the mechanical interactions between those parts? How may that rock system respond to any changes in fluids or stresses or minerals? The workshop illuminated that science-focused borehole tests and experiments can offer unique opportunities to probe this rock behavior.”

Said Fulton: “A deep borehole can also provide lots of scientific insights into how life forms survive deep underground, far from sunlight and at extreme temperatures, and insights into fluid flow, tectonic processes and stress conditions in the bedrock. There is also a lot interest in how a Cornell borehole could be used to help test and advance the development of new instruments and technologies for characterizing the subsurface.”

The workshop’s participants represented Germany, Japan, China, the Netherlands and Switzerland as well as 12 U.S. states and regional universities including Syracuse University, the University at Buffalo, Binghamton University, State University of New York College at Oswego and St. Lawrence University.

Jordan said forming partnerships with both international and regional scientists was a key goal of the gathering.

The experiments developed during the workshop are being placed in a funding proposal to be reviewed by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program. Any funds that come from the organization would be complementary to other sources of funding for the borehole.

“These are ideal experiments that would solve key questions that scientists rarely have the opportunity to work on,” said Jordan. “There’s just a massive amount of excitement that Cornell is the place to do all this.”

Syl Kacapyr is public relations and content manager for the College of Engineering.

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