by George Zamora

SOCORRO, N.M., October 11, 2004 — Two New Mexico Tech geoscientists are embarking on an exploratory drilling project on the western edge of the Socorro campus in hopes of finding a reliable source of geothermal energy that would provide the university with an efficient, inexpensive heating and cooling system, as well as reduced energy bills.

New Mexico Tech geochemistry professor David I. Norman and Tech geophysics professor Harold J. Tobin recently were awarded a $503,172 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Resource Exploration and Definition (GRED) III program to conduct research and exploratory drilling to more accurately evaluate the geothermal potential of university property situated in a previously designated “Known Geothermal Resource Area,” which surrounds Socorro Peak, or “M Mountain.”

In addition, the DOE grant for the research project will be further supplemented by the state-supported research university itself with $125,793 in matching funds.

“We’re embarking on what would normally be a three-year research project,” Norman says, “but we’ll be able to compress it down to two years because we can draw on the extensive geologic exploration and mapping that’s already been done around Socorro Peak in previous years.”

Once Norman and Tobin define specific “targets” through geophysical and geologic studies aided by data garnered from those previous studies, they’ll begin conducting exploratory drilling that may go as deep as 3,000 feet in hopes of striking hot water.

Norman says a recent independent study conducted of New Mexico Tech’s energy needs determined that most of what the university spends on natural gas—which amounts to about $650,000 each year — could be saved by the availability of an 800-gallon-per-minute, 140-degrees-Fahrenheit supply of hot water.

“Actually, according to long-range plans being developed, water heated by geothermal waters through a heat exchanger would circulate around campus through a pre-existing hot-water loop, providing space heating for most of the university’s buildings,” Norman explains, “and this would require geothermal waters of at least 150 degree Fahrenheit.”

Using alternative sources of energy to heat up campus buildings, however, is not a new concept at New Mexico Tech.

During the mid- to late-1970s, several campus committees and research groups at the university investigated the possibility of using geothermal water as a heat source, but the consensus reached was that drilling for hot water would be costlier and riskier than installing solar collectors atop buildings to heat water for the campus hot-water loop.

The passive solar-generated water heating system never performed to expectations, and later fell into disrepair.

The hot-water loop still circulates hot water to buildings throughout the New Mexico Tech campus to this day, but the water is brought up to operating temperatures by natural gas heaters, at a considerable expense to the university.

Norman is confident that results of the new study, being done in collaboration with New Mexico Tech geophysicist Harold J. Tobin, will provide new impetus toward using geothermal waters to heat up — and with heat exchangers, cool down — buildings around the university.

“Some of the previous geochemistry studies done around Socorro Peak indicate that we might even be able to tap into a source of boiling water, which would make it possible to produce our own electricity, but our first goal is to provide heat,” he says.