Editorial: When it Comes to Geothermal Energy, What’s Old is New Again | AIChE

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Editorial: When it Comes to Geothermal Energy, What’s Old is New Again


Emily Petruzzelli, Editor-in-Chief

In much of the U.S., this is the time of year when the weather warms up and the vitality of nature is on full display — birds are nesting, cicadas are awakening, and pollen is in full force. As schools let out for the summer, families journey to America’s national parks and botanical gardens to revel in the great outdoors.

Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting Longwood Gardens to take in nature’s beauty on a warm spring day. Longwood Gardens was the personal estate of Pierre S. du Pont, a member of the prominent du Pont family who served as president of DuPont from 1915 to 1919. Now open to the public, this botanical garden in Kennett Square, PA, is not only well known for its impeccably curated grounds and lush conservatory, but is also renowned for its intricate fountain systems. When it was originally completed in 1931, the main fountain garden was capable of pumping 10,000 gallons of water per minute through 380 fountainheads. This fountain system — a remarkable feat of engineering at the time — used 18 pumps and gravity to shoot water more than 130 feet in the air to entertain and delight audiences.

After operating for more than 80 years, the entire main fountain garden was revitalized in 2014, undergoing a multi-year renovation project to update its infrastructure. Today, the garden’s water performances are powered by 68 modern pumps. One advantage of the major construction project is that guests can now check out the historic pump room and get a close-up view of the preserved legacy pumps (see photo).

The historic pump room at Longwood Gardens

The historic pump room at Longwood Gardens.

Harnessing modern technology to improve upon a legacy process is nowhere more apparent than in the geothermal power industry. The use of geothermal energy for electrical power generation, although developed over a century ago, is not as widespread as other types of power plants. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), geothermal power generation made up less than 0.5% of total global electricity production in 2021.

In an effort to take advantage of this renewable, near-limitless source of energy, companies and researchers are adapting oil and gas fracking techniques to develop enhanced geothermal systems (EGSs). The cover story this month, “Drilling, Fracturing, and Characterizing Enhanced Geothermal Systems” (pp. 23–30), gives readers a basic primer on these energy systems and a look into an ongoing EGS pilot project. Developing EGS technology will allow access to geothermal energy in areas previously unsuitable for these systems. “Capturing even 2% of the thermal energy contained at depths of two to six miles could provide 2,000 times the annual energy used in the U.S.,” write authors McLennan et al.

The Earth gives us many gifts. Our job as chemical engineers is to harness these gifts in a responsible manner to help our daily lives.

Emily Petruzzelli, Editor-in-Chief


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