Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi Professor Wins $1.5 Million Stimulus Grant for Geothermal Research

Potential to "create or save thousands of jobs in drilling, exploration, construction, and operations..."
November 12, 2009 —

Fred Aminzadeh, Research Professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science  and Managing Director of the USC Energy Institute’s Global Energy Center, and his colleagues have won Department of Energy ARRA  funding for an ambitious 3D geothermal mapping and modeling effort.

Fred Aminzadeh: modeling and 3D mapping of the Sonoma County Geysers geothermal field.
The effort will focus on the Geysers area in Northern California's Sonoma county, a high-potential geothermal energy site that is already home to commercial operations.

The two-year, $1.5 million project will be carried out in collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Geysers Power Company, “Calpine,” the operator of existing geothermal power plants in the area.

The objective is to develop new methodologies to characterize the northwestern part of the Geysers geothermal reservoir, gaining better knowledge of their porosity, permeability, fracture size, fracture spacing, reservoir discontinuities (leaky barriers) and impermeable boundaries.

The immediate focus will be creating improved methods for better characterization of fractures in an enhanced geothermal system (EGS).

"This will be accomplished by creating a 3-D seismic velocity model of the field using the micro-seismic data, collected under another DOE-funded project," says Aminzadeh. "We will exploit the anisotropic and fractal nature of the rocks in order to better understand the fracturing system. We will use soft computing to process and analyze the passive seismic data."

Several complementary processing approaches will be used to develop and test new techniques for data collection and analysis. They include micro-seismic data analysis both for compressional (P) and shear (S) waves using soft computing, anisotropic inversion and fractal concepts.

"This will enable us to analyze and interpret micro-seismic data and create velocity fields using tomography. Neuro-fuzzy approach will be used to create a hybrid micro-earthquakes (MEQ) event picking. This project will combine the USC team expertise in these areas with the operational expertise and experience of Calpine as well as the long history of pioneering work of LBNL on geophysical technology applications in geothermal fields."

"Geothermal energy is potentially an extremely important energy source, particularly for California," said Don Paul, executive director of the USC Energy Institute. "Many of the techniques used in oil and gas well engineering are applicable to geothermal, and we look forward to the opportunity to apply this technology in a new area."

 "USC has a long tradition in geothermal energy starting with early pioneering work by Professor Iraj Ershaghi," said Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. "We're happy that Fred Aminzadeh and his colleagues in this project  will now be moving us still further forward."

Two other USC faculty members, also with strong experience in geothermal engineering, will contribute to the effort:  Charles Sammis from the Earth Sciences department of the USC College, and Muhammad Sahimi from the Viterbi School's Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

Experts believe that geothermal energy can play a key role in fulfilling energy needs of the country. “The United States is blessed with vast geothermal energy resources, which hold enormous potential to heat our homes and power our economy,” says Secretary Chu.

R&D Funding of carefully selected projects such as the one awarded to USC will pave the way to realize the full potential of geothermal energy. As is maintained by the DOE, collectively, these projects will represent a dramatic expansion of the U.S. geothermal industry and could create or save significant numbers of jobs in drilling, exploration, construction, and operation of geothermal power facilities and manufacturing of ground source heat pump equipment.

The USC project, entitled "Characterizing Fractures in Geysers Geothermal Field by Micro-seismic Data, Using Soft Computing, Fractals, and Shear Wave Anisotropy," was funded in the category of Enhanced Geothermal Systems Components Research and Development / Analysis. The main focus of this thrust is on research and development of new technologies to find and drill into deep hot rock formations, stimulate enhanced geothermal reservoirs, and convert the heat to power.

"We will accomplish these objectives by joining forces within USC’s school of engineering, its earth sciences and energy institute as well as our external collaborators, LBNL and Calpine” said Aminzadeh.