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Feature

Making geothermal energy truly sustainable

09 September 2022
With more than $6 million in new MBIE funding, University of Ƶresearchers are working to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of geothermal energy.

Geothermal energy has a reputation for being green – but though it’s much cleaner than fossil fuels, it does produce some greenhouse gas emissions. With more than $6 million in newly announced funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, researchers at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, are working to change that.

Associate Professor , co-director of the at the Department of Engineering Science, is leading a team aiming to turn the greenhouses gases that geothermal plants currently emit into rock, trapping it permanently underground. 

“New Zealand is a world leader in geothermal energy technology and many countries implement our research,” says Research Fellow , a member of the team. “This could transform the industry, bringing it from low to no emissions.”

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Dr Eylem Kaya, Associate Professor Sadiq Zarrouk, Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Ayesha Verrall, Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research Jim Metson

And while geothermal plants are the first target, the process has the potential to be applied to other industries, including fossil fuel power plants. If widely applied around the world, it could take a significant chunk out of global emissions, says Zarrouk.

“We don’t claim we’ll be able to eliminate all global emissions but we’re going to help reduce them, starting with geothermal energy and going beyond.”

Geothermal energy: A primer

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Current geothermal plant design

Geothermal energy is a result of the heat at the Earth’s core, which unlike solar and wind, is always reliable. Aotearoa New Zealand’s volcanic fields make the country a great place for geothermal power – it produces the fifth most geothermal energy in the world.

In a geothermal power plant, wells are drilled deep under the surface to reach hot groundwater. As the hot water rises to the surface, some of it turns to steam. This steam powers turbines that produce electricity. The wastewater is then pumped back underground to maintain the system’s pressure.

On average, geothermal plants produce far less greenhouse gas than fossil fuel plants. However, they do produce some, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), as well as hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and other gases, because these gases naturally exist underground and some of it comes to the surface along with the hot water.

The exact amount of emissions varies, mostly due to the natural conditions under the surface, but in New Zealand, some plants emit enough that the carbon price they pay is significant, with the price expected to go up as the country moves towards the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. This is part of what’s motivating the industry to cut emissions.

That’s not all. The Climate Change Commission has recommended closing several high-emitting geothermal fields by 2030 despite the billions the infrastructure cost to build. For the industry to survive, it’s going to have to lower emissions quickly. 

Geothermal power currently supplies 18.1 percent of New Zealand’s electricity. However, if the country’s full geothermal potential were realised, it could supply significantly more of the electricity demand. If geothermal energy were made carbon neutral and scaled up, it would be a big step towards net zero.

Turning gas into rock

Scientists are already working on ways to re-dissolve greenhouse gases in water before the liquid is injected back underground. From there, however, the gases can again escape, whether by naturally bubbling up or through geothermal energy production. That’s why Zarrouk and his team are working on a second step: turning the dissolved gases into rock. 

It may sound like science fiction – but the process of turning carbon into rock exists in nature. It’s why fossils exist. Of course, geothermal engineers aren’t interested in waiting millennia. They’re working on ways to mineralise CO2 much faster. 

In Iceland, scientists are capturing carbon by injecting it underground into the local basaltic rock, which has the right structure and chemical composition to trap CO2 and petrify it into calcite. However, New Zealand rock isn’t as naturally suited for this as Iceland’s. 

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Researchers' new geothermal plant design
“Once the gas is mineralised, it’s stable, harmless and risk-free. Even if there is a seismic event, it remains as rock.”
Dr Eylem Kaya

Zarrouk’s team’s big idea is to introduce the ions that can trap CO2 and H2S and inject them underground along with the dissolved gases. The result will be that even in areas with non-basaltic rock, greenhouse gases can be solidified underground. The CO2 will petrify into calcite and the H2S into pyrite (fool’s gold) – both non-toxic, common minerals.

“Once the gas is mineralised, it’s stable, harmless and risk-free,” says Kaya. “Even if there is a seismic event, it remains as rock.”

The scientists will nonetheless implement a long-term monitoring programme to watch for any problems such as gas escape.

Broad and deep partnerships

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The team is working with a range of partners across Aotearoa and internationally. Its relationship with tangata whenua is key to its work.

“Māori are the owners of the resources and land, so they want to make sure their resources remain safe and that mana whenua have a clear voice in their management,” says Zarrouk. “If this project is commercialised, mana whenua will be part of the business side as well.”

Principles of management for the project will include embedding Mātauranga Māori in decision making, reciprocity and prioritisation of uses of geothermal resources for the benefit of the community.

“Māori use geothermal resources in a very sustainable way,” says Kaya. “We have a lot to learn from them.”

The team aims to develop community capacity by recruiting Māori PhD students. It also aims to spark interest in the field through outreach to high school students.

The team is also working closely with industry partners in New Zealand and abroad. Both Zarrouk and Kaya have been involved with the board of the International Geothermal Association so they are well connected internationally.

“In New Zealand, every geothermal power generation company is supporting this project,” says Kaya. “We also have close collaborators in Indonesia, the Philippines, the U.S., Turkey, Italy, Japan and other countries.”

Reducing emissions worldwide

The team plans to take its technology from the lab to the field within a few years. After the technology is proven, the team plans to commercialise it, whether through licensing, consultancy or by starting a company. In addition to helping advance the team’s research, UniServices is providing early advice on moving from research to commercialisation.

If every existing New Zealand geothermal plant adopted the technology, emissions would be reduced by 560 kilotonnes a year – worth $42.3 million under current carbon pricing. If the technology were applied to other industries, such as dairy – milk plants often use fossil fuels for purposes such as milk drying – emissions would decline still further.

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If fossil fuel plants internationally were to use the team’s process to capture emissions and pump them underground to mineralise, the technology would go from carbon neutral to carbon negative, say the researchers. While there would be a cost to bring in the technology, this would be more than offset by the savings in carbon pricing.

“If this technology is taken up around the world, it will make a real dent in emissions,” says Zarrouk. “Others are also doing their bit, working on the electrification of cars, switching to hydrogen, etc. – this work is part of the big jigsaw to help solve the problem of climate change.”

“If this technology is taken up around the world, it will make a real dent in emissions.”
Associate Professor Sadiq Zarrouk
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