A group of Navajo entrepreneurs in Tohatchi have had their eye on the business potential of an oil-exploration well drilled in the 1950s, but they’re not considering fossil fuel production. The well produces water heated by hidden deep geologic processes. As a geothermal energy source, the well might help power the group’s plans to create a long-term food-water-energy nexus on the Navajo Nation, stimulating the local economy while helping New Mexico transition to a carbon-free energy portfolio.
The entrepreneurs envision the natural hot water and the cooler water resources nearby for filling hot tubs for a spa resort, heating and irrigating greenhouses for food production, and providing water and energy in tandem with solar energy to produce cutting-edge “green” hydrogen. The project lines up with increased interest from national and state leaders and private industry, who want to develop hydrogen as a clean, carbon-free and plentiful energy source for the transportation industry and as a re-electrification energy strategy.
But the team at Tosidoh LLC, a Navajo-owned, veteran-owned private small business operating and managing on the Navajo Nation, needed to know more about the geothermal resource. Tosidoh had many years of data from 43 wells in the area, recording essential information like the water’s temperature, acidity and mineral content. But how much water was hidden underground, and how hot was it?
That’s a science question, and like many small New Mexico businesses, particularly in rural areas, Tosidoh didn’t have ready access to the expertise or technology needed to analyze all that information, so it turned to Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Through an agreement under the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program at LANL, Tosidoh engaged with lab scientists to investigate the geothermal resources and the aquifer below Tohatchi. Tosidoh asked for help understanding what forces were heating the water and what kind of geothermal technology was appropriate. Could the hot water be used for producing green hydrogen from water through electrolysis, for heating buildings and for growing crops in a greenhouse system? They also wanted to know how extensive the underground reservoir was, how much water it contained, and whether they could sustainably pump it to support the proposed commercial enterprises.
Los Alamos had the expertise to help answer all these questions, and the NMSBA program (nmsbaprogram.org) provided a no-cost vehicle to engage that expertise. Now in its 20th year, NMSBA has connected a few thousand small businesses across New Mexico to technical experts and technology at Los Alamos, Sandia National Laboratories, the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership, University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech.
The technical assistance comes in the form of researchers’ hourly time, valued up to $20,000 annually, if a small business is located in Bernalillo or Santa Fe counties, or $40,000 annually for businesses in other counties.
NMSBA has provided technical support to diverse companies whose business ranges from making nitrile gloves to blade sharpening, from using quantum dot materials for solid-state lighting to building crates to safely ship art — even a winery that needed help managing inventory. The list goes on and on. Technical support and expertise span a diversity of scientific, engineering and technical disciplines, such as manufacturing, engineering, earth and environmental science, advanced modeling and simulation, chemistry, and nanotechnology.
For the Tosidoh project, the LANL team applied its expertise in artificial intelligence and geothermal energy. The lab began geothermal research nearly 50 years ago and pioneered numerous new techniques in the field. On the AI side, the lab has developed a cutting-edge AI tool, called SmartTensors, that has proved itself in identifying and characterizing geothermal sites around New Mexico and across the United States. The team used SmartTensors to sift through the vast information from the Tohatchi-area wells to find the hidden patterns that make the data understandable, shedding light on the contents and character of the aquifer and geothermal resources.
The AI analysis revealed two aquifers beneath Tohatchi. The larger one is 37 square miles and 300 feet thick, confirming local oral histories describing an underground “lake” beneath Tohatchi. The lab research found this promising aquifer has the potential to sustainably support a greenhouse-based farm, domestic space heating, a commercial spa and hydrogen production.
The LANL research also found that deep magma — molten rock — was heating the surface water to 98.6 degrees, which is hot enough for the intended commercial use, and that various geothermal technologies could put that heat to work.
The laboratory is continuing to apply AI to understand the nature of the geothermal resource, which will help Tosidoh find the best way to use it commercially. Future areas of study include understanding how the groundwater is recharged and developing a map of potential locations to explore or develop further the geothermal resource in this area. Armed with this information, Tosidoh can refine its business plans, confident they have a much clearer understanding of the hidden resources beneath their feet.