Tufts May Dig Deep for Energy Source

Professor installs geothermal system on campus

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. – The energy under the ground of Tufts campus could potentially supply the fuel to heat and cool buildings.

As part of his course on hydrogeology, geology professor Grant Garven uses observation wells—he has had 12 wells installed around the Medford campus—to teach his students the basics of drilling wells for research, sampling underground water and collecting hydrogeological data. "First-hand experience in the field translates theory into practice," Garven says.

Last year, Garven added a twist: use one of his wells to build a geothermal energy system. This, he thought, would give his students hands-on and experience with the fundamentals of geothermal energy. "It's important for the next generation of geology and geotechnical engineering students at Tufts to become familiar with this rapidly expanding technology," says Garven.

Garven, a faculty member in the professor of geology in the School of Arts and Sciences and adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering, had a well drilled 500-feet below ground, a short distance from Lane Hall, which is where the Geology Department is located. A system of underground pipes runs from the well to a geothermal pump inside the building where it will heat and cool two classrooms. The system has been installed and is generating heat.

Geothermal heat pumps operate a bit like a refrigerator, which takes heat (thermal energy) out of food and transfer it outside the refrigerator. Instead of food as the energy source, the pump removes heat from the ground, which remains a constant 50-to-55 degrees, and moves it inside the living space.

In Tufts' case, the pump will circulate refrigerant through the underground pipes where it will absorb

the earth's heat and flow back into the building, spreading warmth. The process will be reversed in the summer: thermal energy from the classrooms will be transferred through the pipes to the ground.

University Weighing the Potential of Geothermal Energy

Tufts administrators recognize geothermal energy's advantages—it is cost efficient, sustainable, and diminishes reliance on coal and fossil fuels—and plan to evaluate its potential, using Garven's project as a test case. The technology is well-established. More than 160 colleges and universities have a system in place or are in the process of installing one, according to the National Wildlife Federation in a 2011 report.

At Tufts, Betsy Isenstein, the university's energy manager, says the goal right now is to learn about the technology and any operational challenges. "The more we learn about how to install, operate, and maintain this system now, the better we will be able to apply the technology in the future to save money and reduce carbon emissions," she says.

Geothermal energy converges with Tufts' ongoing effort to incorporate sustainability into everything from building maintenance to dining service to teaching research. The only nonrenewable energy used is electricity to power the pump.

While it's too soon to tell, Bob Burns, director of facilities services, says it's possible Tufts University could construct more geothermal wells in parts of the campus. Drilling geothermal wells and installing systems are expensive; however users typically anticipate recovering the costs in fuel savings over a number of years.

Burns says the energy savings would have to be weighed against the cost of digging the well and installing the piping and pumps. The university has hired an engineering firm to survey the Medford campus for possible sites and to study the feasibility of installing systems. 


Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university is widely encouraged.

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