Safer geothermal energy thanks to supercomputers

 (Image: Pixabay © CC0)

(Image: Pixabay © CC0)

Make geothermal energy safer by using supercomputer simulations. That is the aim of the research project FASTER (Forecasting and Assessing Seismicity and Thermal Evolution in Geothermal Reservoirs) which involves Università della Svizzera italiana (USI), the Swiss Seismic Service (SED), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH), and the Swiss National Centre for Scientific Computing (CSCS). The issue has also been the subject of an in-depth article by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung ( Within the framework of the Swiss Energy Strategy 2050, the production of renewable electricity from geothermal energy plays an important role. However, there is still no power plant in Switzerland, capable of producing electricity from the heat of the earth’s depths. That is because test drilling in the past has caused vibrations so strong that they are perceived by the population on the surface. Precisely the concern derived from induced seismicity, i.e. earthquakes triggered by human activity, has prevented further exploration on Swiss soil.

However, the situation could change: since July 2020 researchers of the Swiss Seismic Service (SED) and ETH Zürich have been working with Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) and the Swiss National Centre for Scientific Computing (CSCS) to develop a supercomputer-based process to make geothermal energy safer. The project called FASTER, coordinated by Rolf Krause , Full Professor at USI and Director of the Institute of Computational Science (ICS) and Thomas Driesner , Professor at the Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology at the ETH Zurich, is based on the main idea of reliably estimating the probability of artificial earthquakes already during the hydraulic stimulation of the rock - i.e. when cracks in the stone are opened - with a time frame that allows reacting quickly to avoid these seismic events. The operation requires impressive calculations and the help of the engineers who run the supercomputer at the National Centre for Scientific Computing (CSCS) in Lugano, Ticino. According to the researchers, this simulation programme has the role of predicting possible earthquakes based on the nature of the bedrock substrate, also passing through numerous "virtual variants". In this way, it aims to identify the scenarios that reproduce the seismic sequences and mirrors the real conditions underground.