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Innovation + Job News

U of M researchers aim startup at carbon reduction, more efficient geo-thermal heat capture

Two University of Minnesota researchers have developed technology that solves one problem--the proliferation of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2)--to work improving another: how to more efficiently tap the heat inside the earth for geothermal energy systems.

Earth sciences faculty member Martin Saar and graduate student Jimmy Randolph have applied for a patent and plan to form a startup company to commercialize the technology, according to a press release.

The CO2-plume geothermal system (CPG) uses high-pressure CO2, rather than the conventional water, to carry the heat from deep in the earth. CO2 travels more easily through porous rock and can extract heat more readily, according to the researchers. The research was published in the most recent issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

The technology was "born in a flash of insight on a northern Minnesota road trip," according to the release, as the two conducted separate research on geothermal energy capture and geologic CO2 sequestration.

"We connected the dots and said, 'Wait a minute--what are the consequences if you use geothermally heated CO2?'" states Saar through the press release.

The consequences, according to Randolph, include being able to capture heat "in areas you couldn't even think about doing regular geothermal for electricity production," Randolph says in the release, stating that the technology could double efficiency in some areas.

The research was jump-started with a $600,00 grant in 2008 from the university's Institute on the Environment's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE).

The grant came from an annual pool of $5 million from Xcel Energy's Renewable Development Fund. IREE disburses a number of grants each year through a competition, says Rod Larkins, IREE's associate director.

That funding leveraged another $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and the researchers are hoping to receive an even larger grant, says Larkins, which would require a 20 percent match, of which IREE would cover half (10 percent of the grant amount). That funding would help move the technology into the pilot phase, according to the release.

Saar called the IREE grant "really critical" in the release. "I think it's fair to say that there's a good chance that it wouldn't have gone anywhere without IREE support in the early days," he says.

Larkins says IREE's interest in funding the research stems from the fact that the technology reduces a waste stream in achieving its main objective of capturing heat for geothermal energy.

Source: Rod Larkins, Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment
Writer: Jeremy Stratton
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