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Waste supercomputer heat and old mines could warm homes

31/1/2024

The University of Edinburgh’s Advanced Computing Facility Photo: Keith Hunter / University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh’s Advanced Computing Facility currently releases up to 70 GWh of excess heat per year

Photo: Keith Hunter / University of Edinburgh

A ‘first-of-its-kind system’ in the UK is being trialled to see if waste heat from the University of Edinburgh’s Advanced Computing Facility (ACF) can be stored in disused mine workings and used to warm at least 5,000 Scottish homes.

The University AFC is home to a supercomputer that is used for national climate modelling and health data modelling, and currently releases up to 70 GWh of excess heat per year. This is projected to rise to 272 GWh once the UK government’s recently announced next-generation Exascale supercomputer is installed at the University.

 

The £2.6mn feasibility study will examine how water in old mine workings near the computing facility could be harnessed to heat people’s homes.

 

The process of cooling the supercomputers would be augmented to transfer the captured heat into the mine water – up to a maximum temperature of 40°C – which would then be transported by natural ground water flow in the mine workings and made available to warm people’s homes via heat pumps.

 

If successful, the study could provide a blueprint for converting abandoned flooded coal, shale and mineral mine networks into underground heat storage.

 

With a quarter of UK homes sitting above former mines, potentially seven million households could have their heating needs met this way, the researchers say.

 

The UK government’s target is to install 600,000 heat pumps per annum by 2028. However, it is far from being on track to deliver this, installing just 43,000 in 2022. As a result, in September last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he was raising the Boiler Upgrade Grant by 50% to £7,500 to help households who want to replace their gas boilers with a low-carbon alternative like a heat pump.

 

Commenting on the Edinburgh geobattery project, Professor Christopher McDermott, School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, says: ‘This project opens up the potential for extracting heat stored in mine water more broadly. Most disused coal mines are flooded with water, making them ideal heat sources for heat pumps. With more than 800,000 households in Scotland in fuel poverty, bringing energy costs down in a sustainable way is critical, and using waste heat could be a game-changer.’

 

The project – led by Edinburgh-based geothermal company TownRock Energy – is being spearheaded by industry and academic partners from Scotland, the US and Ireland.