As conversations about climate change progress and become more important, it is essential that higher institutions do their part in protecting the environment.
In an effort to become more sustainable, the University has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. One of the initiatives the University has pursued to achieve this goal was the construction of a trading system geothermal energy to heat and cool the newly opened campus teaching facility.
Geothermal energy is a strategy that brings steam from hot water reservoirs deep in the Earth to the surface to generate electricity.
But according to Dr. Scott Willenbrock, professor of engineering, there are no steam systems in the Midwest and the underground temperature in the region is low compared to areas with active hot springs.
Much of the energy used in the Midwest comes from unsustainable resources. Willenbrock saw a problem there.
“In Illinois, the dominant form of heating for homes and buildings is burning natural gas and sometimes coal,” Willenbrock said. “The idea of geothermal energy is to use electricity for heating.”
During winter in the Midwest, underground heat is warmer than during other seasons. Thus, the CIF geothermal system draws energy from the Earth during the winter.
“The idea of geothermal energy is that in the winter you can actually extract heat from the ground,” Willenbrock said. “In the summer you can dump heat into the ground – that’s what geothermal was here in the Midwest.”
Since electricity is used to heat the building instead of fossil fuels, geothermal energy is more environmentally friendly.
On the ceiling of the CIF there are radiant heat panels that connect to a water supply. The water supply comes from narrow holes dug on the “geothermal field” — BardeenQuad.
The holes, called boreholes, act as sinks that draw in heat from the Earth. There are 40 in total, each 450 feet deep. Then, infrared heating panels on the ceiling of the CIF heat the water from the boreholes.
Eric Vetter, CIF Facilities Manager, reports on the condition of the building to the design team and contractors. He said that the CIF geothermal system is still in a confirmation period.
“We are still working with the contractors to confirm that everything is set up, that all the control valves, all the liquid is flowing properly through the radiant panels and the temperature settings,” Vetter said.
Willenbrock acknowledges that heat electrification still uses fossil fuels. However, the amount used to heat the CIF is less than usual methods would require.
“Even if you were to just leave things as they are now, switching to geothermal energy is still preferable from a carbon dioxide production perspective,” Willenbrock said. “The amount of fossil fuels you use to run a geothermal system is less than you would use if you were using only gas or coal for heating.”
Dr. Yu-Feng Lin, a project team member and director of the Illinois Water Resources Center, said that while there are no current plans for another geothermal building on campus , the center is open to the idea.
“We did a lot of research on campus about this,” Lin said. “The campus has many brilliant scientists, professors and good students, so we are talking to campus leaders.”
Lin praised the student sustainability committee for their involvement in the project. For example, the committee asked civil engineering students to watch drilling with instructors and assess the foundation.
Additionally, computer science students have been working on a website that will track energy and savings for other buildings in the Bardeen Quad. Along with this, the committee allocated $375,000 for the CIF geothermal system.
“Students desire and will try to let people know their power,” Lin said. “That’s the most important part.”