SMU Geothermal

SMU geothermal scientist Maria Richards becomes first woman president of the Geothermal Resources Council

Maria Richards, SMU Geothermal Laboratory

Maria Richards, coordinator of the SMU Geothermal Laboratory in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, has become the 26th president of the Geothermal Resources Council (GRC), as announced by the GRC on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. She is the first woman president in the history of the global energy organization.

The GRC is an international geothermal body that focuses on continuing professional development for its members through its outreach, information transfer and education services.

Richards has been at the forefront of SMU’s geothermal energy research for more than a decade, and the University’s mapping of North American geothermal resources is considered the baseline for U.S. geothermal energy exploration. SMU’s Conference on Geothermal Energy in Oil and Gas Fields, which she directs, is pioneering the transition of oil and gas fields to electricity-producing systems by harnessing waste heat and fluids.

Her projects range from computer-generated temperature-depth maps for to on-site geothermal exploration of the volcanic islands in the Northern Mariana Islands. Along with Cathy Chickering Pace, she also coordinates the SMU Node of the National Geothermal Data System funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Recently, Richards and her colleagues completed a high-resolution shallow Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS) potential analysis for the Cascades region of the U.S. Pacific Northwest for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Her other projects include the Eastern Texas Geothermal Assessment, the Dixie Valley Synthesis, and the resource assessment for the influential MIT report The Future of Geothermal Energy.

She previously served on the GRC Board of Directors and was chair of the Outreach Committee in 2011-12. She was also a Named Director of the 2015 Board for the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association (TREIA).

Richards holds an M.S. degree in physical geography from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a B.S. in environmental geography from Michigan State University.

January 27, 2017|News|

SMU to host geothermal energy conference May 18-20, 2015

Power Plays 2015 geothermal conference logo

The SMU Geothermal Laboratory will host its seventh international energy conference and workshop on the main campus May 19-20, 2015. The conference is designed to promote transition of oil and gas fields to electricity-producing geothermal systems by harnessing waste heat and fluids from both active and abandoned fields.

More than 200 professionals – ranging from members of the oil and gas service industry, to reservoir engineers, to geothermal energy entrepreneurs, to lawyers – are expected to attend “Power Plays: Geothermal Energy in Oil and Gas Fields.

Topics of discussion will include:

  • Power generation from flare gas
  • Power generation from waste-heat and geothermal fluids
  • Research updates on induced seismicity, as well as onshore and offshore thermal maturation
  • Play Fairway Analysis – a subsurface mapping technique used to identify prospective geothermal resources
  • Technology updates

SMU Geothermal Lab logoResearchers from the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences will present results from their Fall 2014 Eastern North American Margin Community Seismic Experiment (ENAM CSE) research. In addition, equipment such as one-well systems, desalination and other new technologies will be explored.

SMU has been at the forefront of geothermal energy research for more than 45 years, and the Geothermal Laboratory’s mapping of North American geothermal resources is considered the baseline for U.S. geothermal energy exploration. Geothermal Laboratory Coordinator Maria Richards and Emeritus Professor David Blackwell have seen interest in geothermal energy wax and wane with the price of oil and natural gas.

But Richards believes current low oil prices will drive more interest in geothermal development, encouraging oil and gas producers to use geothermal production from existing oil and gas fields as they try to keep them cost-effective for petroleum production at 2015 prices.

The technology that will be examined at the conference is relatively straightforward: Sedimentary basins drilled for oil and gas production leave behind reservoir pathways that can later be used for heat extraction. Fluids moving through those hot reservoir pathways capture heat, which at the surface can be turned into electricity, or used downhole to replace pumping needs. In addition, the existing surface equipment used in active oil and gas fields generates heat, which also can be tapped to produce electricity and mitigate the cost of production.

“Oil and gas drilling rig counts are down,” Richards said. “The industry has tightened its work force and honed its expertise. The opportunity to produce a new revenue stream during an economically challenging period, through the addition of relatively simple technology at the wellhead, may be the best chance we’ve had in years to gain operators’ attention.”

Featured speakers include Jim Wicklund, managing director for equity research at Credit Suisse, who will speak on “Volatile Economics in the Oil Field,” and Holly Thomas and Tim Reinhardt from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technologies Office.

STW Water Process & Technology, a water reclamation and oilfield services company, will have desalination equipment on-site for attendees to understand size and scaling capacity of water purification for oil field operators.

Registration is still open; walk-ups will be accepted. For more information, visit

Written by Kimberly Cobb

May 14, 2015|Calendar Highlights, For the Record, News|

Research Spotlight: West Virginia a hotbed of geothermal energy

wv-image-03-press-release.jpgNew research produced by SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory, funded by a grant from, suggests that the temperature of the Earth beneath the state of West Virginia is significantly higher than previously estimated and capable of supporting commercial baseload geothermal energy production.

Geothermal energy is the use of the Earth’s heat to produce heat and electricity. “Geothermal is an extremely reliable form of energy, and it generates power 24/7, which makes it a baseload source like coal or nuclear,” said David Blackwell, Hamilton Professor of Geophysics in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences and Director of the SMU Geothermal Laboratory.

The SMU Geothermal Laboratory has increased its estimate of West Virginia’s geothermal generation potential to 18,890 megawatts, assuming a conservative 2 percent thermal recovery rate. The new estimate represents a 75 percent increase over estimates in MIT’s 2006 “The Future of Geothermal Energy” report and exceeds the state’s total current generating capacity, primarily coal based, of 16,350 megawatts.

The West Virginia discovery is the result of new detailed mapping and interpretation of temperature data derived from oil, gas, and thermal gradient wells – part of an ongoing project to update the Geothermal Map of North America that Blackwell produced with colleague Maria Richards in 2004. Temperatures below the earth almost always increase with depth, but the rate of increase (the thermal gradient) varies due to factors such as the thermal properties of the rock formations.

“By adding 1,455 new thermal data points from oil, gas, and water wells to our geologic model of West Virginia, we’ve discovered significantly more heat than previously thought,” Blackwell said. “The existing oil and gas fields in West Virginia provide a geological guide that could help reduce uncertainties associated with geothermal exploration and also present an opportunity for co-producing geothermal electricity from hot waste fluids generated by existing oil and gas wells.”

The team’s work may also shed light on other similar geothermal resources. “We now know that two zones of Appalachian age structures are hot – West Virginia and a large zone covering the intersection of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana known as the Ouachita Mountain region,” said Blackwell. “Right now we don’t have the data to fill in the area in between,” Blackwell continued, “but it’s possible we could see similar results over an even larger area.”

Blackwell thinks the finding opens exciting possibilities for the region. “The proximity of West Virginia’s large geothermal resource to east coast population centers has the potential to enhance U.S. energy security, reduce CO2 emissions, and develop high paying clean energy jobs in West Virginia,” he said.

SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory conducted this research through funding provided by’s RE<C initiative, which is dedicated to using the power of information and innovation to advance breakthrough technologies in clean energy.

Written by Kimberly Cobb

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October 27, 2010|Research|

For the Record: Oct. 22, 2009

David Blackwell, Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College, received the 2009 Joseph W. Aidlin Award at the Geothermal Resources Council (GRC) annual meeting in early October. The GRC, the primary professional educational association for the international geothermal community, gives the Aidlin Award each year for “outstanding contributions to the development of geothermal energy.” Blackwell’s mapping of North American geothermal resources, and his research into using hot wastewater produced from oil and gas wells as a source of electricity, have dramatically expanded the potential for global geothermal energy production.

October 22, 2009|For the Record|

SMU researcher among experts at Geothermal Showcase in D.C.

Maria Richards and David BlackwellMaria Richards, coordinator of SMU’s Geothermal Lab, was among the industry leaders and experts presenting a Geothermal Showcase at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on May 6.

Participants virtually visited some of the leading geothermal energy development projects in the United States and heard from companies at the forefront of geothermal power growth. A panel of leading geothermal scientists discussed how geothermal resources can contribute to the world’s energy needs.

When most people think of geothermal energy, they usually think of extremely high heat, such as geysers. But the Geothermal Map of North America produced by Richards and Professor David Blackwell for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 2004 revealed locations all over the United States where subsurface temperatures are high enough to drive small, binary power plants and generate electricity. Blackwell and Richards are members of the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College.

This kind of power plant is similar to an air conditioning unit run backwards, using heat to generate electricity. The hot water that runs through one chamber in the pump heats fluid with a lower boiling point in an adjacent chamber, which expands into high-pressure vapor and drives a turbine.

Deep drilling through hard rock is expensive, which is one reason traditional geothermal energy development has lagged behind green technologies like wind and solar power. But Blackwell’s mapping has proven that many existing oil and gas wells in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and some mid-continent states reach shallower depths where temperatures still range from 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit – hot enough for a binary power plant to do its job.

The Geothermal Showcase was sponsored by the Geothermal Energy Association along with Ormat, Enel North America, and Pratt and Whitney Power Systems.

(Above, Maria Richards and David Blackwell of SMU’s Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.)

Read more from SMU News

May 8, 2009|News|
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