New project will see waste from supercomputer and mines used to heat homes

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A pioneering system is being trialled at the University, to see if waste heat from a large computing facility can be stored in disused mine workings then used to warm homes.

The Edinburgh Geobattery project is the first of its kind in the UK and will see the large amounts of energy needed to power the University’s Advanced Computing Facility (ACF) being recycled to heat at least 5,000 households in Edinburgh.

The University is home to the national supercomputer, which is funded by the UK Government’s Department of Science, Innovation and Technology. It is used for national climate modelling and health data modelling and currently releases up to 70 GWh of excess heat per year. This is projected to rise to 272 GWh once the UK Government’s recently announced next-generation Exascale supercomputer is installed at the University.

Supercomputers are already used in a variety of ways across the world such as in weather forecasting, aircraft design and the oil and gas industry. However, the UK’s first next-generation supercomputer – which will be held at the University – is 50 times faster than any of the country’s existing machines.

A new £2.6 million feasibility study will examine how the water in old mine workings near the computing facility could be harnessed to heat people’s homes. The process of cooling the supercomputers would be augmented to transfer the captured heat into the mine water – up to a maximum temperature of 40°C – which would then be transported by natural groundwater flow in the mine workings, and made available to warm people’s homes via heat pump technology.

If successful, the study could provide a global blueprint for converting abandoned flooded coal, shale and mineral mine networks into underground heat storage. With a quarter of UK homes sitting above former mines, potentially seven million households could have their heating needs met this way, researchers say.

Professor Christopher McDermott, lead academic on the University’s Geobattery project, said: “This project opens up the potential for extracting heat stored in mine water more broadly. Most disused coalmines are flooded with water, making them ideal heat sources for heat pumps. With more than 800,000 households in Scotland in fuel poverty, bringing energy costs down in a sustainable way is critical, and using waste heat could be a game-changer.”

The project is led by Edinburgh-based geothermal company TownRock Energy and is being spearheaded by industry and academic partners from Scotland, the US and Ireland. The University is the lead research partner on the project and is providing £500,000 of funding as part of its own net zero objectives.

Scottish Enterprise has awarded a £1m grant to the project through a joint call launched by the Horizon 2020 funded Smart Energy Systems (JPP SES) and Geothermica – two networks that have co-funded projects developing innovative heat and cooling solutions. A further $1m from the US Department of Energy will fund researchers from the Idaho National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. University College Dublin, whose researchers are funded by Geothermica and the Geological Survey Ireland, and the University of Strathclyde are also project partners.

Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service, will help make the research findings an investable proposition and support further funding applications.

Professor Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University, said: “The University’s own climate and sustainability targets mean that we need to look at a wide range of ways to address the challenges of the climate crisis. This project brings together these commitments alongside our own innovative research to find solutions to tackle climate change that deliver direct benefits to people and influence positive change locally and globally.”

Find out more

Pioneering a new era of UK supercomputing | Bulletin