Eden: Harvesting the Earth’s heat to help achieve a carbon-free future
Harvesting the Earth’s heat to help achieve a carbon-free future
As we eye a lower carbon future, one startup out of MIT is working to expand the potential of geothermal energy
Energy production is the single largest contributor to climate change worldwide, accounting for approximately 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN Environment Program. In the future, along with solar and wind, the use of geothermal energy to produce electricity must grow to fill in the gap that will be left by reduced fossil fuel consumption.
The good news is there is plenty of geothermal energy beneath the Earth’s surface to supply humanity’s energy needs. The bad news: it’s difficult to harness.
Today, it’s not practical or cost effective to build geothermal plants in most places due to underlying geological factors. Locations that experience substantial seismic activity, like California and Iceland, are conducive to the approach, and geothermal energy has a long history in both places. But for much of the world, geothermal hasn’t been an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Eden, a Massachusetts-based startup founded by two MIT graduates, is working to change this.
Down and Up the Well
Increased electricity production by geothermal energy will be made possible by an expansion of what are known as “enhanced geological systems.” In simple terms, an enhanced geological system is an electricity-producing power plant that has two wells — an injection well and a production well — drilled into a reservoir of hot rock deep below the Earth’s surface. Water is sent from the surface through the injection well to be heated by the rock below. The heated water then returns through the production well to the surface, where it’s used to produce electricity. This continuous cycle can result in carbon-neutral electricity production.
The efficiency of an enhanced geological system is partially determined by a concept known as permeability, which relates to the ease that fluid moves through the rock below ground. A reservoir that has high permeability is more efficient in terms of energy extraction than one that has low permeability. Eden has developed a technology called “electric reservoir stimulation” that’s designed to increase the permeability of reservoirs, making it economically viable to build enhanced geological systems in more places throughout the world.
“Traditional techniques of fracturing rock to create an enhanced geothermal system don’t work too well because the rocks are too deep and too hot,” said Paris Smalls, co-founder and chief executive officer of Eden. “That got us thinking about what other kinds of new techniques we can use to help geothermal power production, and that’s how we came up with this electric reservoir stimulation technique.”
With electric stimulation technology, “we put electricity into subsurface rock, the rock heats up, and starts to break,” increasing permeability and making it easier to capture energy from the reservoir, Smalls said.
UN Sustainable Development Goals
Ammar Alali, Ph.D.
We are dedicated to fighting climate change and making a difference, especially in underprivileged and marginalized communities most affected by extreme weather.
What’s more, electric reservoir stimulation does this with substantially less carbon emissions and environmental impact than traditional approaches, like hydraulic fracturing, which requires a huge amount of water and can result in small earthquakes that can jeopardize a project.
“If we can increase permeability without using large amounts of water and without creating seismicity, it will solve one of the key challenges in geothermal, which is creating new geothermal reservoirs without harming the environment,” Smalls said.
Smalls, who is a candidate in the joint MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution doctoral program, co-founded Eden in 2017 with Ammar Alali, a graduate of MIT’s doctoral program in geophysics and Eden’s president. They’ve raised nearly $8 million to date to support their efforts, including non-dilutive funding via a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation and a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which was awarded in May 2022.
Smalls and Alali are currently focused on demonstrating the effectiveness of their technology in a wider variety of rock types, at different depths and in different environments. Working closely with Eden, Larta helped the company refine, enhance and expand their customer discovery and development plans. “I’ve been able to interview people who can potentially buy our product or help us better understand market applications of the technology,” Smalls said.
Addressing climate change isn’t only a technology problem for the company’s founders; it’s also about people. “We’re dedicated to fighting climate change and making a difference, especially in underprivileged and marginalized communities most affected by extreme weather. Thus, we believe the people in our company should reflect the global communities we are serving,” they note.
Electric reservoir stimulation has applications in other sectors as well. “This technology goes way beyond geothermal,” Smalls said. Additional applications include use in the mining industry: effective application could potentially decrease mining waste, reduce surface damage and make it more efficient to capture underground resources.
That said, Smalls believes it’s Eden’s geothermal innovations that could have the biggest global impact. “When combined with innovations in geothermal well drilling, our technology can unlock geothermal energy as a major resource to fight climate change,” he said.
July 02, 2021
Breaking Barriers and Rocks
January 26, 2021
ERL/EAPS Student Paris Smalls Makes Forbes' "30 Under 30" List
Paris Smalls has been named to Forbes “Thirty Under Thirty,” a prestigious list of young entrepreneurs.
August 8, 2018
Eden GeoPower secures grant on technology to increase permeability in geothermal reservoirs
Eden GeoPower has secured a small business innovation research grant of $225k from the National Science Foundation in the U.S. to help develop a new method to help increase permeability in oil oil and gas/ geothermal reservoirs.