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Geothermal heat pump research project starts at DMU Leicester

DMU Geothermal Heat Pump

Leicester – home to the largest crisp factory in the world [Walkers] and the decided birthplace of modern standard English, that’s spoken by some 1 billion people worldwide. Today, Leicester is once again making headlines with the construction of a geothermal heat pump research project at De Montfort University (DMU).

DMU was awarded just shy of €142,000 to install, run and monitor the experimental geothermal heat pump, and is 1 of just 4 research centres across Europe involved in GEOT€CH’s (Geothermal Technology for €conomic Cooling and Heating) trials.

What are geothermal heat pumps?

Geothermal heat pumps (or ground-source heat pumps) draw heat from the sun that’s absorbed and trapped in the earth via long heat exchanger pipes buried underground. The conventional means of installing geothermal heat pumps is expensive, which is why they’re rarely used for heating in Europe. The purpose of this research project is to develop a cheaper method of geothermal heat pump installations without sacrificing performance.

“By using innovative drilling and ground heat exchanger technologies that are significantly more cost-effective, affordable and efficient than current technology”, GEOT€CH aims to see widespread applications of geothermal heat pumps across Europe. The project, which is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, also hopes to develop a ‘plug-and-play’ system that takes the complexity out of operating, designing and constructing a geothermal heat pump, which normally requires an experienced team of specialists to install.

Geothermal heat pump trial installation

Unlike normal vertical-loop geothermal heat pumps that need boreholes drilling 60 – 100 metres deep, this installation consists of 4 boreholes, each 10 metres deep, and a new type of duel-source heat pump that switches between heat sources (it can extract heat from the air or the earth). Thanks to novel heat exchanger technologies, the boreholes can be much shallower without sacrificing efficiency, removing the need for large and costly industrial drills.

The trial geothermal heat pump also uses a different drilling technique that’s based on dry auger methods. This method is “less capital-intensive, enhances safety and avoids the environmental risks, complexity and costs of dealing with water supplies and contaminated waste.”

The future of geothermal heating

While these changes might not sound like much, the implications could have a profound effect on heating houses and small buildings across Europe. From GEOT€CH’s website, “buildings are responsible for about 40% energy use and 80% of CO2 emissions”, so there’s a massive potential for untapped energy savings should the trial result in the intended cheaper, more efficient ‘plug-and-play’ geothermal heat pump installation.

To quote Professor Rick Greenough, Research Group Leader at DMU, “Geothermal energy is the future – it’s a clean and sustainable source of power. It does not produce greenhouse gases that can be harmful to the atmosphere.”

“People wrongly think that these heat pumps are expensive and that you need a lot of space to install them, but that need not be the case…Most people rely on gas but there is a limited supply of fossil fuels, whereas geothermal heat pumps can make use of practically limitless heat from the sun that falls on the ground and warms the air around us.”

GEOT€CH drilled the boreholes in early March, and the university will collect data on the experimental geothermal heat pump until April 2019.

Photo © Mat Fascione (cc-by-sa/2.0)

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