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)
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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East Austin restaurant la Barbecue has been robbed a third time in less than three months, according to a post on the restaurant's Instagram.
In the post, the restaurant included photos of what appeared to be a man exiting a minivan from surveillance footage.
"This guy pulled up in a car full of stuff… he ripped our gate open and stole a couple empty kegs," the post said. "The ring system scared him off so he did not venture back into the area. PLEASE EVERYONE ON THE EAST SIDE BE CAREFUL!!! This guy goes back into his car to grab something before he goes in. I am hoping he won’t be back!!"
The robbery comes as many restaurant and food truck owners have been on guard from recent break-ins. East Austin cheesesteak truck R&B's Steak and Fries has also been robbed three times in around three months, according to owner Kris Elliott. Elliot said the truck was last robbed around a month and a half ago.
"When the weather gets cold, it seems like these things start to happen more often," Elliott said. "We're just happy no one got hurt."
Additionally, he said all 5 of the food trucks in their lot have experienced burglaries. The landlord of the space is taking action by investing in alarm and camera systems. "Been very tough dealing with this problem as us small business owners are just trying to survive during the pandemic," Elliott said.
And it's not just in East Austin. North Austin restaurants Eldorado Cafe and Chez Zee Bistro were both broken into and robbed on the weekend of Jan. 8, while over a dozen food truck robberies and break-ins were reported in the latter half of 2021.
Some, like Chez Zee's Deborah Velasco, wonder if the understaffed Austin Police Department's decision to no longer respond to non-emergency calls is part of the problem. Xose Velasco, owner of East Austin's Discada, said owners are keeping their guard up in the wake of the robberies as he was robbed twice within a month of reopening in November 2021.
"We try to keep the lights on," Velasco said. "We're a little bit more careful."
After 12 months, the long-anticipated massive Tesla factory in Southeast Travis County is up and operating and everyone wants a look inside.
Phase 1 of Giga Texas appears to be tied up as production of the Model Y Tesla is underway, the electric car company revealed on Wednesday in its fourth-quarter earnings call. The factory, located on the former Harold Green-turned Tesla Road, sits on more than 2,000 acres of land in southeast Travis County.
Here's a glimpse inside the factory.
Model Ys will be the first Teslas to come out of Giga Texas with an estimated delivery of August. The wait estimate comes after Tesla noted supply chain issues have affected their factories, which have been running below capacity for several quarters. A deep blue metallic like this goes for $1,000 more than a white or silver Model Y, totaling $61,990.
Model Ys began being produced at Giga Texas at the end of 2020. In general assembly at the factory, the Teslas get their major interior components to finish the vehicle.
Workers at Austin's Gigafactory are attaching seats to a structural battery pack. It's been described by some as the biggest difference between Texas-made Model Y's and the current version at the Fremont, California factory. It shouldn't have a major impact on the owner's experience, but Tesla has updated instructions for the jacking procedure, as the lift points are different.
With a sleek, open office setup, workers can take in a view of the factory from their seats. It's a component CEO Elon Musk wanted for what is now the headquarters of Tesla.
On the Austin, Texas public location Snapchat, a photo of inside Giga Texas has appeared. On the left you can see a sneak peek of a Model Y body.pic.twitter.com/N7zliZ5vkL— Sawyer Merritt (@Sawyer Merritt) 1643081462
With Snapchat's maps, anyone can look at everyday activity happening at the factory. To view these geographically-linked stories, click the bottom left "map" icon and search "Tesla Giga Texas." Once you've found it, you can view the Snapchat story of those in and around the facility. While most stories stay up for only 24 hours, Giga Texas is a designated place on Snapchat, allowing users to view a collection of photos and videos from the inside.
Following Model Ys, Texas-made Teslas will include the Cybertruck, Semi and Model 3. But it might be a while before those other models arrive. EV makers have been hit hard by the chip shortage, and it's thought that changing features are contributing to Cybertruck delays as Tesla works to compete in the electric pickup market.
Joe Rogan paid a visit to buddy Elon Musk this week. The two have been seen around town since both moving to Texas. Naturally, Rogan was impressed with the prototype.
If you're dying to get a closer look at this factory, you just might get to. In December, Musk said the factory would have tours available to the community early this year.
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