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Geothermal engineers might have a hot future in the Army

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geothermal engineers
Geothermal pumps were installed at Fort Hunter Liggett (left). Tour of geothermal pond and a decentralized power generation facility at Fort Knox (right).

If you need an inexhaustible source of steady power, what’s even better than a nuclear reactor? Well, the military is now targeting geothermal engineers to harness geothermal energy. It’s basically a nuclear reactor that contains about a third of the earth’s mass and can never meltdown. And you can pee on it safely. If you’re into that. Or you could eat off of it. Or like, tailgate, I guess. Look, it’s really safe.

What is geothermal?

If you’re not at the forefront of the lava flow that is the geothermal energy, here’s a quick primer. The earth has a bunch of molten rock in it, right? Hence the lava reference. And that molten rock is insanely hot, thanks to immense pressure, friction, and nuclear reactions in the earth’s core. That heat transfers up into the mantle, then the earth’s crust, and is then captured.

Engineers target areas where underground reservoirs constantly turn into pressurized steam from the heat. But newer tech allows for geothermal fracking, where engineers inject water and other chemicals into the crust to gather up that same heat, then the resulting steam flows to a turbine or a heat exchanger.

No matter how you capture it, you end up with steam for heat, for generating electricity, or both.

So what’s this got to do with the military?

The yahoos in uniform are always looking for reliable power, preferably on the cheap and with few risks to the health of service members or to operations on major bases. Clean electricity is increasingly important as the military prepares for climate change’s impacts on bases and combatant threats.

Basically, when China makes a play for islands in the Pacific, the military prefers that its power generation in California not be vulnerable to supply disruption and not be a threat to its own folks in case of attack or sabotage.

The Department of Defense started experimenting with geothermal in 1987. But it only had two power stations at one location at China lake in California. But DARPA held a workshop in 2010. The program got another boost last year when the Department of Defense requested information for 14 sites worldwide. And now, the Defense Innovation Unit is asking for commercial plans for geothermal energy at military bases.

The future?

Geothermal energy probably isn’t coming to a base near you in the immediate future. It’s a great “base load” power, and weather can’t stop it. But it’s also much more expensive than wind or solar, the military’s preferred renewable energy so far. And it’s not nearly as mobile as an actual nuclear reactor.

You can’t drill a hole from a carrier into the earth’s crust and then sail very far. I assume. I’m not actually an engineer.

But the Defense Innovation Unit focuses on commercially available technology. And geothermal is a mature technology that is already producing power around the world. So your next generation of ASVAB all-stars could sign contracts for geothermal engineers. But if they show a Marine fighting a lava monster in the recruiting commercial, don’t fall for it. Again.