An RMIT Masters of Engineering student’s tool to map the Earth’s geothermal energy will be used by the International Heat Flow Commission and the International Renewable Energy Agency.
When Laura Andrea Torres Ujueta attended a class on geothermal energy as part of her Master of Engineering (Sustainable Energy) studies, she thought it would make an interesting topic for her final project.
Lecturer Lawrence Molloy from the School of Civil, Environmental and Chemical Engineering agreed to work with her to develop a better way to map the flow of heat through the crust and upper mantle of the earth, known as the lithosphere.
They came up with the Google Earth Global Heat Flow Overlay which is an exploration, research and educational tool, soon to be made freely and publicly available via the global heat flow database at the University of North Dakota (UND).
The project plots the global heat flow using the 57,768 global heat flow points collected by the International Heat Flow Commission and converts the data to the ArcGIS software platform, which is then displayed as a Google Earth overlay.
The global heat points have been mapped over the last few decades by Professor Will Gosnold and his students at UND and Torres Ujueta’s work captures the latest in mapping technology.
“I started to work on my mapping skills and concluded that ArcMap was the ideal software to do the mapping itself while Google Earth was the best way to show the information,” she said.
Geothermal energy refers to the inexhaustible heat that comes from the earth, which has low to zero emissions and is therefore sustainable.
“An important parameter to detect geothermal energy potential is via the heat flow –defined as the heat emitted from the earth’s interior – which provides an indication of temperature variation within the earth and in local basement rocks,” she said.
“Values of heat flow are then needed to determine what can be harnessed; in terms of energy, heating or industrial applications.”
Torres Ujueta said it had been a challenge to manage the data across a global scale.
“Data gaps occur and mapping the heat flow contours on a planetary scale depends on localised geologic patterns that greatly determine heat flow.
“While there are some very hot places on the planet, as volcanos and fumaroles indicate, most of the planet’s surface is very cool.
“The potential benefits of the Google Earth Global Heat Flow Overlay could be better national heat flow data policies; access to previously non-accessible datasets from national geologic surveys; greater validation of individual data points; and enhanced resource assessments.
“This tool also creates cartographic information in an attractive, easy-to-read manner, which will help organisations to make economic decisions and contribute to knowledge diffusion.”
In addition to sharing the overlay with UND, Torres Ujueta and Molloy are currently exploring the possibility of sharing the tool with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
“I recently sent the files to a specialist who is working on the atlas of renewable energy at IRENA,” Torres Ujueta said.
“While there are some compatibility issues at present, it is hoped that they will eventually be overcome so that the map layer will be available for everyone to use via their own database.”