What is the research focus of the “Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies”?
At the “Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies” ETH Zurich studies, in close collaboration with national and international partners, techniques and procedures for a safe, efficient, and long-term use of geothermal heat. A focus lies on the physics of induced seismicity. Researchers conduct different experiments. Whereas some put a strong emphasis on the geothermal processes involved, others test different drilling and stimulation techniques. A dense monitoring system allows to observe even the smallest changes in stress, pressure, and fluid movements. Only in a rock laboratory, such close monitoring is possible and affordable.
What is the expected impact of the experiments conducted?
We hope to gain a better understanding of the relevant processes in the framework of a deep geothermal exploration. Our results aim at contributing to a safer and more sustainable use of geothermal energy in Switzerland and elsewhere. This is a precondition for being able to increase the share of geothermal energy by five to ten percent, needed to fulfil the goals set in the Energy Strategy 2050.
The “Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies” itself will not generate any heat or electricity for commercial use, but one experiment will create a geothermal reservoir, which will be used to test heat exchange on a monthly and yearly basis.
Are there any potential risks associated with the work conducted at the “Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies”?
Very small, not perceptible earthquakes are an inherent part of deep geothermal projects. They cause fractures and keep them open, both enhancing the permeability of a reservoir necessary for an efficient operation. The aim of every geothermal project is to enhance the permeability without causing any felt or damaging earthquakes.
At the “Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies”, very small earthquakes are as well expected. Compared to natural, damaging earthquakes, the size of the volume stimulated and the depth of the rock volume are considerably smaller. Therefore, the risk of provoking perceptible or even damaging earthquakes is extremely low. A dense monitoring system allows us to observe even smallest seismic activity. In case predefined magnitude thresholds are exceeded, the procedures will immediately be adapted and, if needed, stopped. Our aim is to study how we can prevent felt or damaging earthquakes and not to provoke any at the “Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies”.
For the environment, there are no potential risks, as no chemicals will be injected in the rock nor will any other harmful substances being used.
A rock laboratory including the handling of different instruments naturally offers a less safe working environment than a regular office. Therefore, different measures are taken to protect the technicians and researchers working at the “Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies”. Besides instructions to wear protective clothing, operational procedures are predefined and monitored.
For each experiment, a detailed and rigorous risk study will be produced specifying the saftey measures to be obeyed.
Is there any additional information about the experiments planned?
Please have a look at the following page: Activities.
How long will the “Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies” be in operation?
The owner Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn has currently given ETH Zurich the permission to use the tunnel as a research infrastructure for eight years.
Why was the Bedretto tunnel chosen for this research infrastructure?
Similar experiments have already been conducted on smaller scales at university laboratories or at the Grimsel rock laboratory. The ”Bedretto Underground Laboratory for Geoenergies” now offers the opportunity for experiments on a bigger scale, which allows verifying previous results in a more realistic setting. Instead of stimulating rock formations at a couple of centimetres as in a laboratory, or at a scale of 10 meters as in Grimsel, experiments will be conducted on a scale of 100 meters and more. Therewith, the rock formation stimulated is still smaller than in a real deep commercial geothermal project, but significantly bigger than what has scientifically been analysed so far. In addition, the coverage of 1,000 to 1,500 meters above the tunnel simulates well the pressure conditions at relevant depths for a geothermal reservoir.
Deep geothermal energy accesses rock structures at least 400 meters into the earth, and various uses are possible depending on the temperatures in the subsoil.
Temperatures of between 20 °C and 70 °C are found in aquifers (layers of rock or soil that can absorb and hold water) at depths of 400 to 2,000 meters. The thermal water found at these depths is suitable not only for bathing but also for heat production, and systems that exploit the drainage water from tunnels can be put to a similar use (SFOE, Nutzung der Erdwärme - Überblick, Technologie, Visionen).
At depths of 4,000 meters, temperatures beneath Switzerland are between 150 °C and 200 °C. Geothermal energy projects that access these layers of rock generally use part of the energy recovered directly for power production, while the rest can be fed into a district heating grid.
The Bedretto Lab can only be visited by appointment.
Currently, the Bedretto Lab can only be visited by partners and specialists. Due to capacity reasons we are unable to offer guided tours for the public at the moment. We aim at providing public tours in the future and we will advertise them on this website and on our Instagram account.