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University Opens Geothermal Entrepreneurship Center

Geothermal energy plant

Geothermal energy plant in Iceland (Falco, Pixabay)

6 Dec. 2019. A federally-funded research and entrepreneurship center is underway to adapt and commercialize geothermal energy technologies from the oil and gas industry. The Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization at University of Texas in Austin is funded by a $1 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technologies Office.

The Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization aims to encourage commercially-viable innovations in geothermal energy that capture heat from deep beneath the earth’s surface, and translate that energy into electric power. In Iceland, the country’s geology offers geothermal energy relatively close to the surface, which the nation exploits today to power homes and industries. In many parts of the U.S., however, geothermal energy sources reside much deeper beneath the earth’s surface, requiring different technologies and business models.

The new center at UT-Austin is researching ways to tap geothermal energy as a commercially-viable source, taking advantage of engineering and business resources on campus. The oil and gas industry amassed decades of experience drilling for energy that can be readily applied to geothermal energy, according to Jamie Beard, executive director of the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization.

“Drilling technically complex, high-temperature and high-pressure wells is a core strength of the oil and gas industry,” says Beard in a university statement. Beard, also assistant director of the university’s entrepreneurship center, adds, “We want to take advantage of Texas’ existing intellectual capital and leadership in geosciences and drilling to build the future of energy. By leveraging technologies and methodologies developed here over the past century and building upon them with new innovations, Texas can pioneer our clean energy future.”

Eric van Oort, a petroleum engineering professor at UT-Austin, and co-investigator on the project says that “the oil and gas industry has a large amount of experience in drilling deep high-temperature, high-pressure wells that can be straightforwardly leveraged into deep geothermal drilling and well construction. This is not a blue-sky ambition.”

The Department of Energy grant funds research on technical and commercial feasibility of geothermal energy, along with modeling and design of new technologies for energy capture and distribution, as well as related economic and environmental analyses. But the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization aims to take the research findings further, highlighting opportunities for start-up enterprises seeking to bring these technological advances to the marketplace.

Robert Metcalfe, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship in UT-Austin’s engineering school and co-director of the new center notes that its program expects to resolve many of the economic questions about geothermal energy, reducing the risks for entrepreneurs. Answering these questions up front, he says, can bridge the so-called valley of death that plagues science-based companies, where proof-of-concept in the lab doesn’t advance to the market, because of risk-averse funders.

“That makes start-ups and commercialization an essential part of our effort,” says Metcalfe. “We will create clusters of geothermal start-ups based on technologies developed at UT to infuse the industry with fast and impactful innovation that is mature enough for industry to immediately leverage.”

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