Innovative, Underground Heating Planned for UVA Manning Institute of Biotechnology

February 17, 2023 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

The new Paul and Diane Manning Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Virginia will be warmed with geothermal heat, which stores energy in underground wells.

The recently announced Manning Institute, which will position UVA at the forefront of cutting-edge medicine such as cellular and gene therapies that could revolutionize how diseases are treated, will use a newly tested geoexchange heating method.

In simple terms, geoexchange involves capturing hot water produced at one time, storing it underground, and later retrieving it to help power systems that provide heating and cooling to a facility, such as the biotechnology institute. The UVA project will capture heat that is generated as a byproduct of air conditioning other University buildings in warmer months, and store it in hundreds of deep, tubelike wells underground, where the steady temperature of the earth will maintain that heated water until it is used to power systems that heat and cool the institute.

The announcement comes four months after UVA workers drilled a series of deep holes around Grounds and determined that the area’s geology is suitable for using the earth as a storage medium for heat.

Paul Zmick, director of energy and utilities at the University, said the project includes construction of a small thermal utility plant to provide heating and cooling to the planned, 300,000-square-foot Manning Institute building. The thermal plant, which will feature between 100 and 200 geoexchange wells to support the biotechnology building, will be the University’s first large-scale geothermal project.

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“I’m excited about the possibilities that geothermal heating brings to Grounds, including environmental sustainability and efficiency, and I’m grateful to Paul and his colleagues for the planning work that has now yielded results for the Manning Institute and beyond,” UVA President Jim Ryan said of the project.

Zmick said the test wells bored in the fall proved the project was feasible.

“We drilled five wells, at 600 feet deep and 6 inches in diameter, and did the thermal testing on all five,” Zmick said.

The five wells where testing was completed were located at Fontaine Research Park, at Facilities Management, Nameless Field, Carr’s Hill Field and the Park on North Grounds.

Finding water in the test bores indicated a good capacity for heat retention, Zmick said.

Workers inserted pipes in each test well, filled them with heated water, and Zmick’s crew measured the resulting heat retention for 48 hours.

In the system, the hot water stored in the wells can be retrieved as needed, and coupled with heat recovery chillers to produce and distribute heat to the institute.

“The test numbers indicate that we have a solid basis to move forward with geoexchange on Grounds,” Zmick said.

Exploring geothermal exchange is part of an effort to save on utility costs and to move the University toward carbon neutrality by 2030.

Donald Sundgren, associate vice president and chief facilities officer, said geoexchange is a significant part of UVA’s strategy to reach that carbon goal and to become fossil-fuel free by 2050.

“The opportunities afforded by coupling geoexchange with heat recovery chillers are significant, both in carbon reduction and the associated cost savings,” Sundgren said. “It is exciting to now be moving forward with the first of those projects, and in particular applying the technologies to serve the new Institute of Biotechnology.”

The heat plant for the Manning Institute will be connected to the wells installed under a parking lot. Each well will have two pipes connected to it, a supply and return. The project will be large enough to heat other buildings if needed.

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“And it will be a totally electric heating plant, so there’ll be no combustion,” Zmick said. “This is a very novel plant. The technology is going to be heat recovery chillers combined with geoexchange fields, with some typical chillers for peaking and electric resistance boilers for heating, but the bulk of the work will be the geoexchange and heat recovery.”

Once set up as a passive energy system, it will not require maintenance. The wells have an anticipated life span of 50 to 100 years.

“If there’s a problem with one of those wells, such as a tube leak, you plug one tube and keep going,” Zmick said.

Facilities Management will also use the technology.

“We’re going to put one of the test wells into production,” Zmick said. “We are building a 3,000-square-foot metal fabrication shop, and we’re going to use that test well connected to a heat pump to heat the building.”

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications