Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

High-tech tools help scientists explore cutting edge

Dr Bruce Mountain, senior geochemist at GNS Science, pictured with a hydrothermal flow simulator. Photo / Alan Gibson
Dr Bruce Mountain, senior geochemist at GNS Science, pictured with a hydrothermal flow simulator. Photo / Alan Gibson

New Zealand's booming geothermal industry will now be backed by a multimillion-dollar research facility described as one of the most advanced of its kind.

GNS Science's Wilson Building, housing a group of cutting-edge laboratories, was yesterday opened at the institute's campus at Wairakei, north of Taupo, after an 18-month, $4 million upgrade. It is home to an overhauled New Zealand Geothermal Analytical Laboratory, handling as many as 8500 fluid and gas samples each year.

A centrepiece of the lab is the Southern Hemisphere's only hydrothermal flow simulator, which can be used to replicate the geothermal conditions within the Earth's crust, at temperatures as high as 400C.

Senior geochemist Dr Bruce Mountain said testing how different chemicals react with rock in these extreme environments could help producers maintain deep geothermal wells, which cost millions of dollars to replace.

The equipment could also be used for simulations before used geothermal fluid was reinjected into the ground, as was practice in the industry.

Another part of the facility, the GNS Science Extremophile Laboratory, holds a collection of about 1500 strains of micro-organisms that live in the geothermal and volcanic areas of the central North Island.

Called extremophiles, these hardy microbes can thrive in temperatures as high as 120C, and their potential could prove colossal to science.

These microorganisms could be used in applications as varied as breaking down cellulose in order to make ethanol for biofuels, to creating thermo-stable anti-biotics. One Nobel Prize-winning discovery was the application of an enzyme from Thermus aquaticus, a species of bacteria found in Yellowstone National Park that scientists used to effectively photocopy DNA and is now one of the most important tools in molecular biology.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of all microbial species are still undiscovered, which GNS researchers are slowly seeking to change by collecting samples from 1000 hot springs across the North Island.

The opening of the new facility comes amid a renaissance in geothermal energy, which today contributes about 15 per cent of New Zealand's baseload electricity generation.

Scientists believe there is potential to double this by 2025, by which time the Government wants 90 per cent of our energy supply to come from renewable sources.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce, who opened the laboratories, expected energy supply from geothermal sources was "definitely going to increase" over time, and said GNS was well positioned to continue driving the growth.

"I think GNS are going about this stuff the right way - they are a science organisation, but they're also focused on raising incomes, so they can do more investment in their science."

- NZ Herald

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