Research & Innovation

Cheng Chen Awarded $1.52 Million from the Department of Energy to Harness Geothermal Energy

Stevens professor of civil, environmental and ocean engineering is advancing human-made energy reservoirs with an eye toward net-zero carbon emissions in the future

Cheng Chen — associate professor and Nariman Farvardin professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology — is exploring the next frontier of renewable energy with a recent Department of Energy grant of $1,521,587 for his project, “High-Temperature Testing of Proppants for EGS and Simulation of Electromagnetic Fracture Mapping Using Electrically-Conductive Proppants.” Utah Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy serves as prime.

Chen’s vision for sustainability comes, in part, from an unlikely source. “We were inspired by the hydraulic fracturing technologies that have been widely used in the shale oil and gas industry, where I worked several years before returning to academia,” he said of this project.

With this award, Chen and his collaborators from Colorado School of Mines and the University of Texas at Austin will investigate enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), or human-made geothermal energy reservoirs — a promising form of renewable energy with the potential to power 65 million American homes and businesses. These systems harness energy from deep beneath the earth’s surface when fractures (or cracks) are opened in extremely hot rocks, and a proppant — a granular material, such as sand or ceramic particles — is inserted to keep these crevices open. Next, water is injected into the subsurface, circulates throughout the fractured hot rock, and is pumped back up to the surface, where it is now piping hot and ready to be used for heat or converted into electricity for the grid. 

“Our project aims to use both experimental and simulation methods to develop state-of-the-art technologies to achieve uniformly-distributed fractures in an EGS and to enhance the ability of fracture detection and mapping, which is critical to making energy recovery from EGS reservoirs efficient and economically viable,” Chen said.

Chen’s project has two primary aims. First, the team will experimentally test the high-temperature performance of electrically-conductive (EC) proppants under EGS conditions. They will also use numerical simulation to explore how EC proppants and fluids can be used in fracture detection and mapping, as the current technologies for imaging and mapping of man-made fractures in EGS reservoirs are still in early stages.

As we move toward a more sustainable future, Chen sees EGS as a critical technology under development. 

“EGS technologies will contribute clean and renewable energy to the U.S. energy portfolio, which is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting the transition to economy-wide net-zero or net-negative carbon emissions,” he said.

Learn more about academic programs and research in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering: