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Mukul Sharma, a 36-year faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, co-founded a new geothermal energy startup. (Geothermix)

Fracking: energy miracle or environmental menace?

The controversial method of injecting liquid at high pressure into shale and other rock formations to release the oil or gas inside has boosted domestic oil production in the U.S. while also raising concerns of earthquakes and groundwater pollution.

But Mukul Sharma, who holds an endowed chair in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, has another vision: geothermal fracking, a near-carbon-free energy source that carries fewer risks.

"Drilling horizontal wells and fracking them has been used in oil and gas, but it's never been done in the geothermal space," he told Austonia.

Mukul Sharma is known as the "Frack King" in some industry circles. (University of Texas at Austin)

New tricks

Known as the "Frack King'' in industry circles, Sharma co-founded a new startup, Geothermix, last year. The Austin-based company aims to develop enhanced geothermal systems that are commercially competitive, scalable and environmentally friendly.

Historically, oil and gas wells were drilled down vertically, deep in the ground where temperatures could exceed 500°F. With the advent of widespread horizontal fracking in the late 1990s, the area available for heat exchange increased by up to a thousandfold, Sharma said.

Instead of using horizontal drilling for oil and gas production, Geothermix plans to apply the technique in a new way: to generate geothermal energy. Instead of injecting water into the rock to push out oil or gas, it will inject water into the horizontal wells, where it will heat up. The resulting hot water or steam will then be pushed out of the well via a closed-loop system and converted into electricity.

This stands in sharp contrast to traditional heating systems, which depend on the combustion of fossil fuels in a furnace or boiler. Although fracking relies on fossil fuels, the resulting geothermal systems won't. "It's a near carbon-free energy source," Sharma said.

Geothermal fracking is also less risky from an environmental perspective. When used for oil and gas production, fracking can trigger earthquakes. "In geothermal we are actually circulating fluids," he said, adding that this circuit method reduces the pressure change in the group by providing an outlet. "There's no such thing as zero-risk, but you can keep the risk really small."

This graphic shows how an enhanced geothermal system could work. (Department of Energy)

The long game

Geothermal fracking is not without its challenges, however.

Such systems will require horizontal fracking on-site because it's difficult to transport hot water and gas over long distances. This means they won't benefit from the economies of scale of a large power station.

There is also the question of money. Is geothermal fracking commercially viable? "That's the real unknown right now," Sharma said. He believes it will be competitive where the cost of power is very expensive, such as in rural areas far from the electrical grid. (Some Texans may also opt for a more expensive geothermal energy source if it gets them off the grid, given the catastrophic winter storm in February.)

Geothermix is working to demonstrate a successful enhanced geothermal system in the next six months. The timing could be just right. "Geothermal energy is poised for a big breakout," read a Vox headline from October. "(G)eothermal is no longer a niche play," Vik Rao, former chief technology officer of the oil field service company Halliburton, told the Heat Beat blog last year. "It's scalable, potentially in a highly material way."

The U.S. Department of Energy also weighed in, publishing a 218-page report on enhanced geothermal systems in 2019. Although the report acknowledged the technical and economic challenges, predicting that full commercialization is likely more than a decade away, it was clear about the upside: "Compared to a total U.S. annual energy consumption of 1,754 (terawatt-hours-thermal) for residential and commercial space heating, this EGS-based resource is theoretically sufficient to heat every U.S. home and commercial building for at least 8,500 years."


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