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A large share of the geothermal resources suitable for power generation--those with temperatures higher than 300°F--are deep underground, beyond the reach of current technology. Lower-temperature resources, which are common across the United States, are generally used for heating, but could be a bountiful source of power as well, if researchers were able to find an economical way to convert them into electricity.
Engineers at the United Technologies Research Center (UTRC), a unit of United Technologies based in East Hartford, CT, say they have developed a low-cost system that can utilize low-temperature geothermal resources. The technology could be particularly useful in generating electricity from waste hot water generated at oil and gas wells.
The modular, 200-kilowatt power plant from UTRC can convert temperatures as low as 165°F into electricity. The technology is similar to steam engines, except that steam or hot water vaporizes a hydrofluorocarbon refrigerant that drives the turbine. And the refrigerant has a lower boiling point than water. "It's hard to run a steam engine at 165 degrees [Fahrenheit]," says Bruce Biederman, who leads the project at UTRC. "The size of the equipment would be enormous and your turbine would be very poor in efficiency."