Waste supercomputer heat and old mines could warm homes

Dimly lit disused mine tunnel at the National Mining Museum in Scotland
National Mining Museum (Image: Neil Hanna)

A first-of-its-kind system in the UK is being trialled in Edinburgh to see if waste heat from a large computing facility can be stored in disused mine workings and used to warm homes.

The large amounts of energy needed to power the University of Edinburgh’s Advanced Computing Facility (ACF) could be recycled to heat at least 5,000 households in Scotland’s capital.

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The facility, home to the national supercomputer and used for research such as national climate modelling and health data modelling, currently releases up to 70GWh of excess heat per year.

This is projected to rise to 272GWh once the UK Government’s recently announced next-generation Exascale supercomputer is installed at the University.

The £2.6 million feasibility study will examine how the 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 pump technology.

If successful, the study could provide a global 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, researchers say.

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

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Lead academic on the project, Professor Christopher McDermott from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, said: “This project opens up the potential for extracting heat stored in mine water more broadly. Most disused coalmines 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.”

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