A Peek Beneath the Surface

Preschoolers get a glimpse of project that could heat Duke’s campus

A student leans over the pvc pipe coming out of the ground and lowers a measuring tape down the hole while a hardhat wearing engineer guides.
The ground is wet and muddy and drilling material is all around them.

This year the team of scientists went deeper and drilled 677 feet.

“What we’re really looking for are aquifers in the sub-surface that can store hot or cold water,” Meyer-Arrivillaga said before the youngsters arrived. “If we’re able to find these aquifers we can store a lot of hot in there and then pump it out as needed all across Duke, and that would ultimately reduce a lot of carbon usage, which is in line with Duke’s goal of becoming carbon neutral.”

Meyer-Arrivillaga leading the little people to the drilling site was apt. 

He grew up in Durham, and the drilling site is less than a half block from the same preschool on Alexander Avenue that he attended when he was a kid.

“My former preschool teacher still works at the school, and I asked if she would like to bring her class here today to learn about our site,” Meyer-Arrivillaga explained. “I am going to show them the rocks, the core we pulled out and give them a very rough idea of what our goal is here.”

The scientists’ far-reaching goal? Deploying the renewable energy that may be stored underneath the surface of the open field to heat buildings and homes throughout the city of Durham.

The drilling exploration is headed by Peter E. Malin, professor emeritus with the Nicholas School of the Environment’s Earth and Climate Sciences Division, and Manolis Veveakis, a Duke professor of civil environmental and mechanical engineering, and a member of Duke’s Multiphysics Geomechanics Lab.

Malin likened the geography of the subsurface of the open field to a slice of cake turned sideways. The subsurface holds rock formations that are 200 million years old, during the Triassic period, and an even deeper formation that’s 600 million years old.

Malin said the project is trying to determine the physical properties of the rocks, and their ability to store hot and cold water. Malin nodded toward the Chiller Plant tank on the university’s West Campus that’s used to store hot and cold water.

“What if we could store it underground instead of a big tank?” he asked. 

Meanwhile, the preschoolers — sippy cups in hand — gathered in a small circle around the drilling site and took turns looking into a bore hole less than three inches wide.

Hands hold a note book titled "Field Notes" with a drawing of a cylindrical conductor withing a rock casing. It is followed by other note on the area geology.

Nick Rebman, a private consultant at the site, asked if they knew about geo-physics.

“Yeah!” chirped one merry little fellow.

“Okay, hey, you’re smart,” Rebman answered.

A couple of the kids volunteered that their dads had the same watch Rebman was wearing.

Another little girl with colorful barrettes decorating her braids announced that her dad calls her, “little baby,” and she doesn’t like that anymore.

Then she peered into the bore hole and jumped up and down several times.

Meyer-Arrivillaga handed a blonde-haired little guy the drill bit used to cut through the underground rock and create the tiny, deep hole.

“Is it heavy?” he asked the child.

“Yes,” the little boy replied.

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One little girl in a pink tank top and a pink hair band with bunny rabbit ears, was asked what she thought about the machine used to drill the hole.

“Cool,” she answered.

Meyer-Arrivillaga hopes the preschoolers’ experience at the drilling site will help foster their appreciation for science and the natural world.

“I think it’s a great way to educate the younger community,” he said, “and hopefully inspire them to care about these issues that are extremely important in today’s climate.”