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Koenraad Beckers: A Love of Science Benefits Geothermal Research

March 27, 2018

Photo of Koenraad Beckers

In June, NREL researcher Koenraad Beckers will bike from Boise, Idaho, to Yellowstone National Park. The ride is typical for this avid biker. The reason, though, is unusual. Passionate about geothermal energy research, he wants to observe the hot water in both places.

"It's a little geothermal team bike ride, if you will," said Koenraad. He'll be joined by his former Cornell University Ph.D. adviser, another biking enthusiast who encouraged him to ride in Upstate New York, as well as some other friends. "We’ll visit Boise's geothermal wells and the plants where they run their geothermal system, and also do some sightseeing. Then we'll go to Yellowstone, which is a beautiful place, but also has a lot of geothermal activity."

Such an adventure isn't unusual for the Belgian native. Science and life have been intertwined since he was a boy growing up in Sint-Truiden, a small town in the Flanders region of Belgium, near Germany and the Netherlands. His first love back then was star-gazing, learned from his father, a cardiologist and amateur astronomer.

Science Provides a Foundation

Koenraad pursued science in school, earning his bachelor's and then his master's degrees from the University of Leuven in Belgium in 2009. "One of my favorite classes was fluid mechanics and heat transfer in college. You can develop these models, do these simulations, and come up with solutions you will see in real life." As Koenraad explains, one can put a cup of coffee down and after 20 minutes, it is possible to predict what temperature it will be. "You can use the science to simulate these events in real life. It’s not just theory."

Having been encouraged to look beyond Belgium's borders, he found an internship at a hydro-electric plant in Thailand—his first real work in renewable energy—and spent a semester in Germany. "Those two experiences convinced me to see more things outside of Belgium. It's so small, it’s easy to see everything."

While scanning for opportunities, he saw a program at Cornell that combined research in energy with economics. Aided by a highly-competitive Fulbright grant, he came to the United States. "I was supposed to only be one year in the U.S. But you get involved in a project with your adviser, the adviser says 'Hey, there's more funding coming in. Don't you want to stay longer?' So, I transferred into the Ph.D. program," he said.

Arriving at NREL with a Head of Steam

For his Ph.D., Koenraad focused mostly on geothermal research and launched GEOPHIRES, a geothermal techno-economic simulation tool. With his strong thermal background, he was brought into NREL's Thermal Sciences Group in May 2016, as a postdoc. His manager, Mark Mehos, gave him an opportunity to pursue concentrating solar power (CSP) research. The common theme between geothermal and CSP is heat transfer. Drawing from his favorite university class, he believes this heat is an overlooked form of renewable energy. Heat is everywhere in the earth's subsurface, and that energy can be tapped: calculate what the temperature is from a geothermal reservoir, design a process of pumping water into the injection well and getting heat over the next 30 years. This is "very much a heat transfer problem," Koenraad says.

While various forms of geothermal energy are gaining traction in Europe, China, and elsewhere, Koenraad says support from the U.S. Department of Energy is encouraging for the future development of this resource. He has personally benefited from NREL support for his work and was part of a lab-directed funding opportunity for fiscal year 2017 to upgrade his GEOPHIRES model.

Now a geothermal researcher, Koenraad is enjoying life at NREL. "I'm having a lot of fun and learning a lot. My work keeps me going every day. And you really feel like you are doing something useful for the world," Koenraad says. "I'm doing it with great people here. I can't think of any other place I want to be now."

Being in Colorado only adds to the attraction, because in his spare time, he can hike, snowboard, or cycle. Although he also gets back to Belgium regularly, Koenraad feels there's plenty more to see in the United States. "Colorado is one of the best places to be. And at the same time, I feel like a bit of a tourist, so I get to travel."

That explains his upcoming 400-mile bike trip. "It’s a great way to see the country," he says—as well as a good way to keep tabs on geothermal energy.