Courtesy of Earth Source Heat

Drilling began on Borehole Observatory on June 13.

June 14, 2022

Cornell Begins 2-Mile Drilling Project on Borehole Observatory

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Starting the week of June 13, Cornell University will begin drilling on the Cornell University Borehole Observatory, located near Palm Road in Ithaca on University-owned property. 

CUBO is designed to reach a depth of approximately 10,000 feet, or 1.89 miles. It is intended to help researchers understand the geologic conditions that exist under the Ithaca campus, as well as put monitoring systems into place for continuous use during future Earth Source Heat (ESH) project phases. CUBO’s purpose in itself is not to produce heat; rather, the borehole observatory will be used to evaluate whether deep geothermal heating will create unacceptable or unintended impacts.

Ole Gustafson Ph.D. ’20, an engineer with Facilities and Campus Services and geologist with the College of Engineering, said that after a week of drill rig assembly, the drilling process will take about 60 days to reach the intended depth, with drilling taking place 24 hours a day.

“A critical part of the drilling project will be collecting core samples from the deep bedrock and then also collecting geological and geophysical data to determine the feasibility of Earth Source Heat,” Gustafson said in a video released by the CUBO project.

The Cornell Sustainability Council is the driving force behind this initiative.  

“We are the group that thinks about the future of the campus,” said Dr. Lynden Archer, dean of the College of Engineering and co-chair of the Cornell Sustainability Council, in a video released by the CUBO project. “In particular, we are working towards Cornell’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2035.”

There are currently no geothermal systems in existence that provide a solution to Cornell’s heating needs and geological situation. If successful, CUBO would not only enable Cornell to develop a system to heat the entire Ithaca campus within the next decade, but would also provide a solution to sustainable heating in cold-climate regions worldwide.

“Our longer term goal is to learn from CUBO how to deploy this technology out into the world so we can also heat buildings and communities elsewhere,” Archer said.

In a June 2 newsletter sent to the Cornell community, Archer and Rick Burgess, Co-Chair of the Sustainable Cornell Council and Vice President of Facilities and Campus Services, noted the project’s steps to reduce impact on the surrounding campus and local communities — including using an electric drill rig, a step they say will help to minimize noise and air pollution.

The University will have to drill through gas-producing rock layers in the process of creating CUBO, but precautionary steps will be taken to seal off and minimize any release of gas into the environment, according to the project website. Seismometers and water-monitoring wells will track safety in CUBO’s operations. 

“My expectation is that just as people look out to the cosmos to learn what’s above us, CUBO provides an opportunity to look beneath us, to understand what’s in Earth and in this context, of course, how it can be used to create a more sustainable future here at Cornell,” Archer said.

The project is funded by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. Questions about the project can be submitted to the ESH website and there will be representatives from the project team onsite every Tuesday from 12 to 1 p.m. beginning June 14 to speak with those interested in learning more.