Collaboration Fuels Next-Generation Energy Research
Geothermal energy – the heat stored below the earth’s surface – is renewable, clean, reliable, and, in Idaho, plentiful. In fact, the state is consistently ranked as a top state for geothermal energy potential.
However, finding and extracting geothermal energy is neither easy nor cheap, often requiring expensive, labor-intensive, and sometimes unproductive, exploratory drilling. Consequently, Idaho’s geothermal energy resources remain largely untapped.
“The real costs associated with developing this kind of energy are related to identifying where the resources are and building the infrastructure to get the resources to the surface so they can be used,” said Robert (Bob) Smith, geothermal researcher and University of Idaho associate director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES).
Smith is heading up a multi-institutional team of CAES geothermal researchers to explore turning the abundant volume of hot water flowing beneath Idaho’s surface into an economical power source. As the push for renewable energy intensifies, Smith said the researchers are aiming to make geothermal energy a more viable option for Idaho.
“Geothermal energy is a 24/7 kind of energy that can meet our increased needs for baseload energy without burning additional fossil fuels,” he said. “Geothermal energy could help Idaho reduce its reliance on out-of-state electrical generators and give our state better control over its energy resources.”
Created in 2006, CAES is a partnership between the University of Idaho, Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho State University, and Boise State University. The collaboration pools all four institutions’ expertise, resources and innovations to promote economic development and help move Idaho and the nation toward a future of sustainable energy.
“Idaho is a small state. By working together, we leverage the capabilities of each institution to make the state more competitive in this arena, and we can develop the breadth of expertise necessary to tackle the most complex energy problems,” Smith said.
CAES supports research and education in nuclear science and engineering, geofluids energy science, bioenergy, advanced materials, energy efficiency, and energy policy. This work provided an 11 to 1 return on the state of Idaho’s $1.6 million investment in CAES in 2011. The collaboration has a significant impact on Idaho’s economy, contributing $64 million in regional sales, 889 jobs, and $1.4 million in tax revenue to the state of Idaho from 2009 to 2011.
“CAES is a testament to what can be done when people decide to work together,” Smith said. “We’re four different institutions, working collaboratively on a common set of goals, achieving quite remarkable things.”
This includes the work of University of Idaho professor, Milo Manic, who is part of a team of CAES scientists studying fuel efficiency in buses. Manic and a group of students developed a virtual bus simulator that mimics controls, pedals and road conditions. The tool can be used to better understand bus driver behavior and how decisions behind the wheel affect mileage. The ultimate goal is to create an Intelligent Driver System that would provide real-time feedback to help drivers improve fuel efficiency.
“Instead of telling drivers how they did after they finish a route, this tool would let them know what is coming up, whether they should slow down or speed up, and what else they can do to improve efficiency,” Manic said.
As part of the CAES collaboration, the University of Idaho has developed its graduate degree programs in nuclear science and engineering to help build the Idaho National Laboratory and the nation’s workforce. Graduate students are heavily engaged in CAES research and often partner with the private sector to gain relevant real-world training. Recently, students worked with nuclear energy companies to examine safety issues for next-generation power plant design. CAES is also leading a statewide initiative in which students work to improve energy efficiency of industrial systems at regional companies.
“We are educating and training the energy professionals that will implement the advanced energy systems of the future,” Smith said. “CAES is committed to training the scientists, engineers, and social scientists necessary to advance our country forward.”