Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The next 26,000 years of geothermal energy below our feet

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pilbara geothermal“Western Australia has a long ring of hot rocks starting north of the Perth basin and stretching into the Pilbara.” —Dr Durrant-Whyte. Image: TysonATHE National Information and Communications Technology Australia (NICTA) is applying machine learning to locate ‘hot rocks’ suitable for geothermal energy production.

The two-year, five-million dollar project is the first funded under the Australian Government’s Emerging Renewables Program and sees NICTA working closely with the University of Sydney to develop algorithms, with outcomes applied by ANU and the universities of Melbourne and Adelaide with industry contributions.

Machine learning involves the design and development of algorithms that allow computers to evolve behaviours based on empirical data.

It involves mining probabilities, illustrating relationships between observed variables, complex pattern recognition and intelligent decision making—and is an emerging method of analysing large and complex data sources.

NICTA’s project includes geothermal sensor data, gravitational, radiometric and electromagnetic data and information from seismic surveys and drill samples.

“Australia is quite fortunate in that there is a lot of public information available in geology, both from government and company sources” says NICTA CEO Dr Hugh Durrant-Whyte. 

“We’re putting all these types of information together to create a picture of what is three to four kilometres below the earth’s surface.

“We’ll be able to give companies a good understanding of what is underground before they drill, providing a safer and more economical bet on finding a good geothermal target.”

This is the first time machine learning has been applied to geothermal targeting, providing valuable insight into the complex features of particular rocks.

“A good rock has to be more than just hot,” says Dr Durrant-Whyte.

“It has to be porous or able to be fractured so that water can be forced through it.”

In geothermal energy production heat is extracted by circulating water through hot rocks below the earth’s surface. This extremely hot water returns to the surface under pressure and is converted into electricity.

Abundant, natural and renewable with zero carbon output, geothermal energy boasts a long-term base load power, available 24 hours a day, unlike solar and wind.

According to estimates by Geoscience Australia, one percent of Australia's geothermal energy could supply the nation's annual requirements for 26,000 years.

It may also be ideal for WA.

“Western Australia has a long ring of hot rocks starting north of the Perth basin and stretching into the Pilbara,” says Dr Durrant-Whyte.

“Wells have been drilled, but not enough hot rocks have been found. This data will give us a better understanding of how viable geothermal energy can be for the State.”

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