Multi-institution geothermal energy research project earns Sloan Foundation support

Posted: July 17, 2020


Jeff Bielicki

Associate Professor Jeffrey M. Bielicki and his research partners have received a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Net Zero and Negative Emissions Technologies initiative.

Along with University of Michigan Assistant Professor Brian Ellis and North Carolina State University Associate Professor Jeremiah Johnson, Bielicki will study ways in which carbon dioxide (CO2) can be used for geothermal energy production and renewable energy storage in support of reducing and reversing the flow of CO2 into the atmosphere. These efforts seek to mitigate global climate change.

The Sloan Foundation grants are addressing the need for pioneering research in “net zero” and “negative emissions” technologies. Net zero technologies, such as CO2 capture and storage, do not add CO2 or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In contrast, negative emissions technologies result in the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These approaches pull CO2 from the air and store or use it in ways that keep it out of the atmosphere.

The foundation’s RFP received nearly 80 submissions, and the team is one of four to be awarded a grant. Ohio State Department of Horticulture and Crop Science Assistant Professor Laura Lindsey leads one of the other project teams.

The Bielicki, Ellis, and Johnson team will investigate how to pump CO2 —which is captured from industrial processes such as coal-fired power generation—and isolate it underground in realistic geologic settings in order to enable carbon-free renewable energy generation directly from geothermal resources and indirectly from wind and solar resources.

geothermal energy diagram
screenshot of "Geothermal Energy: Enhancing Our Future" video by Gilley, S., and Bielicki, J (2013),

Geothermal heat flows from deep under the surface of the earth, and it can be used for heating and cooling or to generate electricity. Using CO2 instead of water to extract geothermal heat has a number of benefits according to Bielicki, who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geodetic Engineering and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. He also serves as a research co-lead for the sustainable energy research area in Ohio State's Sustainability Institute.

“CO2 can extract heat more effectively, expand the locations where geothermal energy production is economically viable, and reduce the amount of CO2 being emitted to the atmosphere,” said Bielicki.

The team’s proposal builds on work Bielicki has conducted with colleagues elsewhere. “Almost all of my previous research involved ideal homogeneous underground storage reservoirs,” he explained, “but this work will investigate more realistic reservoirs, with heterogenous properties. These investigations will be coupled with other modeling efforts—from geochemistry to energy system integration—to determine the degree to which using CO2 for energy production or storage in this way can lead to less CO2 in the atmosphere, rather than simply adding less CO2 to it.”

While the University of Michigan is the primary recipient of the $613,000 grant, Ohio State will receive approximately one-third of the funding to support Bielicki, one of his graduate students, and a post-doc.

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