Since this summer, companies that are directly or indirectly active in geothermal energy have been able to use an advanced laboratory in Rijswijk, in the province of Zuid-Holland. Here facilities are available for full-scale testing and experimentation with new drilling techniques and materials under high pressure and temperature.
One of the goals of the Rijswijk Centre for Sustainable Geo-energy (RCSG) is to develop geothermal energy, an increasingly important renewable energy source to accelerate the energy transition.
The lab was built by Shell at the time and has now been transferred to TNO to operate it with the support of EBN, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, the Province of Zuid-Holland and the Municipality of Rijswijk.
Up a gear
“As a drilling company, we have a lot of R&D knowledge and installations in-house, but the equipment in this lab is unprecedented," says Peter de Vin, director of Huisman Geo. "And that, combined with the in-depth knowledge of two universities and TNO, makes this facility an innovation centre where Dutch industry can take major steps to make geothermal energy a success. As far as we are concerned, things are still going too slowly. This enables us to move things up a gear.”
Testing under extreme conditions
“This is also necessary," says Gert-Jan Heerens of TNO, "given the important role that geothermal energy plays in the energy transition. It is one of the most important sources of sustainable energy supply. In the Netherlands, we currently produce 3.5 petajoules per year, but that needs to grow to 50 PJ in 2030 and at least 200 PJ in 2050. Geothermal energy will then supply about a quarter of our country's total demand for heat. Yet there is still much to be done in terms of more efficient and cost-effective drilling, with an increasing focus on safety. In short, many technical innovations are needed. These can be developed and tested under the most extreme conditions of high pressure and temperature. Full scale and full size.”
A deliberate choice was made for open innovation. Any interested company is welcome to use the facilities in the lab. The consortium is actively working on setting up a community of companies that, preferably, do not work on new methods and products just for themselves, but in cooperation with others. This will create a network of companies active in geothermal energy, heat storage and salt extraction together with machine builders and suppliers of components and materials.
"This will bring about ideas. Like the universities, at TNO we can make the connection between scientific knowledge and its application in practice. In this way, together we can achieve much more at a much faster pace. Who knows, maybe we'll develop methods or equipment here that will soon spread worldwide," says Gert-Jan Heerens.
The facilities are impressive. Installations built on solid foundations cover the entire spectrum of subsurface drilling. Like a huge drilling installation above a well that is almost 500 metres deep in which new materials and methods can be tested. There are overhead cranes everywhere, hydraulic presses of 300 and 400 tonnes, pressure vessels of up to 1,000 bar, piping systems for pumping and testing liquids. Almost all underground conditions can be realistically simulated to determine how materials and components behave under high pressure or at extreme temperatures at depths of kilometres.
Open innovation for industry
Companies now have access to state-of-the-art facilities that they would otherwise be unable to use. Peter de Vin: "That really makes this lab unique. In addition, the beauty of the open innovation model is that companies do not have to invest in test facilities themselves. That's just too expensive and that's why potentially wonderful findings remain unused. Even for a well-equipped company like Huisman, this lab is a technological land of milk and honey in this field. Not only do we want to test materials, but we are also interested in the data that comes out of it. I am thinking, for example, of collaborating with companies that specialise in sensor technology. By integrating sensors into the drilling process, you can drill much smarter and accurately predict when maintenance is needed. In this way, you can reduce the costs over the entire lifespan. Here in the lab, you also meet entrepreneurs from other sectors. I can see surprising combinations happening and therefore innovations."
Wider application is central
Martin van der Hout, Secretary-General of the Dutch Association of Geothermal Operators (DAGO), which brings together thirty geothermal companies, says that "much of the technology and expertise from other methods of mining is of value to geothermal energy. A group of specialists from DAGO spent an afternoon in Rijswijk in a session with RVO and TNO. Of course, knowledge questions about the design of a doublet go beyond the experience of one operator or one contractor. At DAGO, we share a great deal of knowledge and this also happens between operators themselves. Rijswijk offers pre-competitive research opportunities that are extremely valuable for geothermal energy in order to cut costs, improve safety and reduce risks. Operators attach great importance to working in an open environment with suppliers who may be each other’s competitors. DAGO is also happy to contribute to the further success of geothermal energy through this lab.”
Open to students
According to Heerens, the cooperation is not limited to industry. Universities and polytechnic institutions are also welcome in the open innovation centre. "We'll have to build about seven hundred geothermal doublets in the long run. Now there are less than twenty-five of them. And once built, they need maintenance. But there is no training for that in our country. Companies that build wells are now mainly focused on oil and gas production. Here, students can get to know the world of geothermal energy, conduct research and carry out experiments that are impossible elsewhere. This should also lead to acceleration.”