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Researchers use drilling data to find a geothermal hot spot in West Virginia

Monday, October 11, 2010; 5:05 PM

West Virginia is a very hot state. Really.

Researchers have uncovered the largest geothermal hot spot in the eastern United States. According to a unique collaboration between Google and academic geologists, West Virginia sits atop several hot patches of Earth, some as warm as about 400 degrees. If engineers are able to tap the heat, the state could become a producer of green energy for the region.

In 2004, researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and elsewhere created the Geothermal Map of North America, which charted the potential for geothermal energy. Two years ago Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the search engine giant, hired the SMU scientists to update the map.

The group analyzed oil and gas firms' temperature data that no one had mapped. Those data were collected via single thermometer readings on the end of drilling equipment, but the readings were artificially low because of water used to cool and wash the equipment. So the SMU team corrected the readings according to the rock type that was being drilled. Then the researchers estimated the temperatures of adjacent rock layers according to their geologic properties.

The work revealed surprising results for West Virginia, a state that had only four data points in the 2004 map. The Google-funded effort added measurements from more than 1,450 wells in the state. The warm spots were found at depths of about two to five miles. By comparison, geothermal hot spots in Nevada reach about 400 degrees at about 1.25 miles below the surface, and steam produced from them runs turbines to create electricity. Iceland, meanwhile, has 400-degree temperatures just below the surface and uses warm water to heat buildings and showers throughout Reykjavik and elsewhere.

The finding was a surprise to the scientists. "Nobody expected West Virginia to show up as a hot spot," says SMU's Maria Richards, a geothermal expert and geographer.

Experts are already weighing how the state might exploit the geothermal energy. Electricity is extremely cheap in West Virginia due to its abundant coal, so geothermal energy probably can't compete for business from utilities there. But West Virginia's state geologist Michael Hohn says the state's extensive network of power lines makes it a good candidate for exporting electricity produced by geothermal power to states such as Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

- Eli Kintisch

This article comes from ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science, which can be read online at news.sciencemag.org.

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