Sabrina Xie / Sun Graphics Designer

Heat pump exploiting the high heat of Ithaca's bedrock to generate steam and decrease carbon emissions.

April 5, 2021

Cornell Taps Into Earth’s Core for Renewable Energy

Print More

In what some have called the most important month in U.S. climate policy, Cornell is making a dent in its own carbon emissions in its development of an innovative way to heat the campus during its notorious winter months. 

The Earth Source Heat project looks to pivot Cornell from using fossil fuel-based heating to geothermal energy — utilizing heat from the Earth’s subsurface rocks — to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2035. 

The University’s current heating system employs an antiquated steam system that burns fuel to heat up water to generate steam, which is then used to provide heat. 

Because the new project utilizes similar steam pipes to the ones already in place to deliver heat, the Ithaca campus is perfect for the Earth Source Heat project, Christopher Galantino M. Eng. ’19 who analyzed seismic data for his master’s thesis explained.

Implementing this project will mean that heating on campus will be provided by circulating water through the Earth’s subsurface — which can reach temperatures of up to 200 degrees Celsius —  to raise the water’s temperature before returning it to the surface, where it can heat campus buildings as it runs through the building pipes. 

Since heating on campus accounts for 80 percent of the 162,223 metric tons of carbon dioxide released in 2020 by the University, the project — which is scheduled to launch by 2024 — could significantly reduce the campus’s carbon footprint.

To access the geothermal heat a well will be dug near the College of Veterinary Medicine to provide an energy source where water will be heated to temperatures around boiling point in crevices below Earth’s surface before returning to the surface where it can be used for heating campus buildings. 

Before work on the project can start in earnest, scientists at Cornell are working to understand how well the rock will be able to fracture when drilling deep down into it. The team will also need to confirm that the drilling is not at a location that will threaten contamination of local water, Galantino said.

Cornell students will play a role in analyzing seismic impacts of the borehole, which will reveal information about how much heat can be produced by geothermal energy to determine how effective the new system is.

Zachary Katz ’23, who is a seismic data analyst for the Earth Source Heat project, plays a key role in perusing seismic subsurface information — a geology survey analyzing vibrations on earth crust to better understand its stability providing insight on proper drilling practices and locations. 

Before implementing this geothermal heat system, the team needs to confirm that human- induced seismicity — strains on the local Earth crust as a result of drilling will not affect the normal vibrations of the bedrock under Ithaca. 

Katz said that their data analysis needs to confirm that the impact of constructing machines such as pile drivers and using quarry explosions — controlled use of explosives to break rocks for excavation — will not be detrimental to the city of Ithaca. 

“We look for where seismic events are located and we can differentiate if it is a natural seismic event or human caused,” Maia Zhang ’21, another student contributing to seismic data analysis said.  

The biggest challenge facing the project is to produce data confirming that the bedrock is viable for drilling so that the team knows what to expect before the project is implemented on a larger scale at Cornell.

After testing the bedrock of the area, the second phase of the project would be to drill a demonstration well-pair as the Ithaca campus can be heated by three or four pairs of wells connected. 

As the work done up to this point has been exploratory, the second phase has a tentative plan to begin in 2024. The grant given by the Department of Energy will run for three years, and during this time the sustainability team will continue to gather and analyze data in the geological region in hope of implementing the wells to reach the 2035 goal for carbon neutrality.