25 September 2007

Harnessing an untapped energy source which has the capacity to power Australia for 6000 years will be the focus of a new centre at The University of Queensland (UQ).

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has announced a $15 million five-year contribution to a new research and development centre for “hot rocks” - the Queensland Geothermal Energy Centre of Excellence.

Welcoming the announcement, UQ Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Paul Greenfield, said it could lead to abundant zero-emission baseload electricity.

“Geothermal energy has unique potential in that it creates no greenhouse gas and could be a reliable source of baseload power, so it will satisfy industry, householders and the growing demand for “green” energy,” Professor Greenfield said.

“It will become cost-competitive when the expense of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels is factored in.

“This energy source is often called “hot rocks” because it is based on fractured granites, heated to up to 250°C, which are at least 3km below the Earth’s surface,” Professor Greenfield said.

UQ Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor David Siddle, said: “The Cooper and Eromanga Basins beneath Queensland and South Australia are believed to be among the best and hottest in the world, and hold enough water to supply the needs of a hot rocks power plant, without depleting the natural aquifer.”

Queensland’s geothermal energy resource is equivalent to that needed to supply Australia’s current demands for 6000 years.

“In the shorter term, we estimate that 4000MW of geothermal power could be generated by 2030 without any carbon dioxide emissions,” Professor Siddle said.

There would be three main steps to the process:
• Water would be forced downwards through natural rock fractures, where it would be heated and then rise through other fractures to above-ground heat exchangers;
• The heat exchangers would heat a working fluid to drive a turbine-generator set, to produce electricity with no greenhouse emissions;
• Meanwhile, the water which had been thrust to the surface by the hot rocks would be recycled back into the earth to be reheated, forming a closed water circuit.

Professor Greenfield said that the centre of excellence was an investment in research and development, as well as in the expansion of technical expertise.

“We need these investments to make large-scale geothermal power generation a sustainable reality,” he said.

“Ideally geothermal should become part of a mix of energy sources which would include clean coal and gas, and established renewables.”

In addition to the $15 million from the Queensland Government, UQ will provide in-kind contributions valued at $3.28 million over five years and a further $2.05 million will be raised from external sponsors.

The centre will be the biggest of its type in the nation and will make Queensland and Australia a leading technology provider in the growing geothermal energy sector, through research and development. UQ will work with institutions in the USA – where Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will be a partner – and Iceland, as well as relevant Australian collaborators.

Brisbane-based company, Geodynamics Ltd, is one of about 16 companies active in geothermal power generation in Australia. Geodynamics Ltd initiated Australia’s first underground heat exchanger in the Cooper Basin in late 2002.

Professor Greenfield said the new centre would not have been possible without expertise provided by UQ researchers including Professor Hal Gurgenci (School of Engineering); Professor Victor Rudolph (School of Engineering); Professor Max Lu (Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology); and Professor Tapan Saha (School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering).

Media inquiries: Fiona Kennedy (07 3365 1088, 0413 380 012 fiona.kennedy@uq.edu.au).