Courtesy of Cornell University

CUBO mud logger Juliette Torres '23 takes samples from the drill site on July 7, 2022. Since this summer, the CUBO project team has transitioned from data collection to the analysis phase of the project.

November 7, 2022

Cornell University Borehole Observatory Project Team Holds Open Meeting to Discuss Progress

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The Cornell University Borehole Observatory project team held an open meeting on Thursday to inform the Cornell community on the future of the project.

CUBO is a nearly two-mile-deep borehole located on the southeast edge of campus, about a mile east of Collegetown. CUBO is designed to analyze the deep earth conditions beneath Cornell’s campus. The data gathered from CUBO will help determine if conditions are adequate for Earth Source Heat, a geothermal energy process in which water is circulated through underground wells, harvesting heat from Earth’s interior.

With drilling having been completed in August, CUBO has shifted to its data analysis stage. Thursday’s meeting gave community members the opportunity to hear from six members of the project team, as they reported early findings from CUBO.

“I am personally pleased to announce that the early data gathered from CUBO are promising,” said Prof. Lynden Archer, chemical and biomolecular engineering, who is also the dean of engineering and co-chair of the Sustainable Cornell Council.

For ESH to be a possibility at Cornell, three conditions must be met — temperature, flow volume and long-term sustainability. Data from CUBO confirmed that the temperature, rock type and permeability align with initial hypotheses, giving the project team hope that an enhanced geothermal system could be implemented at Cornell.

The proposed EGS technology includes two wells supporting 40-80 liters per second of water flow across permeable rock between 75-100 degrees Celsius. The well pair would pump that hot water to the surface, where heat would be transferred to another closed-loop system and circulated throughout campus buildings. Water in the well pair would then be pumped back down beneath Earth’s surface, where it would once again be heated. 

CUBO has identified three target depths beneath the surface that meet the permeability and temperature requirements. The borehole has also painted a clearer picture of Cornell’s proposed EGS system, as the construction of CUBO mirrors the drilling required to build geothermal wells.

“We now have excellent knowledge of how to design and how to budget for the well,” said Prof. Terry Jordan, earth and atmospheric sciences.

The project team has focused on transparency throughout the drilling and data collection process, posting weekly videos and data in a blog. This frequent communication has increased both collaboration with partners in the geothermal industry and education outreach for the public. 

“Having a real demonstration here that’s fully transparent, letting people learn from what we’re doing — will be an important first step forward,” said Prof. Jeff Tester, chemical and biomolecular engineering, who also serves as the principal scientist for ESH.

Implementing ESH would aid the University in reaching its goal of carbon neutrality by 2035. The team estimates that Cornell’s ESH system could cover 100 percent of the campus’s heating demand, eliminating fossil fuels from Cornell’s heating budget.

Ithaca is an ideal location for geothermal — the cold winter months correlate with a high demand for heating, and the proximity of hot rock beneath Earth’s surface allows for manageable drilling depths. With over 1,000 colleges and universities worldwide pledging to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, CUBO serves as a blueprint for campuses with similar natural resources for ESH.

“The decision to pursue deep geothermal is excellent because if it works here, it can work anywhere,” Archer said. “We want to be the campus that demonstrates technologies at a scale that can be used everywhere.”

In fact, some regions are even better suited for ESH than Cornell. The project team explained that many areas of New England are characterized by hot granites, continental rock that releases heat through radioactive decay. College campuses in these regions would not have to drill as deep into the earth to reach temperatures required for ESH.

Following their presentation, the team opened the meeting to questions. Some attendees raised concerns about potential seismic activity and negative environmental impacts associated with drilling, but the project team assured that CUBO posed no such threats and that they expect to see similar results if ESH is implemented. 

The team also emphasized CUBO’s role as a cornerstone of Cornell’s Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department and earth science research infrastructure.

“CUBO is distinctly different — although it’s an exploration well in one sense for geothermal, it really is a laboratory,” Tester said. “Regardless of what happens, it will always be there as a place where we can train students and involve faculty.”