Quaise Energy, an MIT spinoff, has developed a unique drill technology that aims to unleash ultra-deep geothermal energy for clean, almost endless energy.
The aim is to use steam from the Earth instead of coal to repower traditional coal plants worldwide. Despite the project’s high cost, the company expects it to replace its first coal-fired plant by 2028 (1).
Direct Energy Drilling
As far as we know, temperatures in the Earth’s core are about 5,200 °C or 9,392 °F, generated from the radioactive elements decaying, combining with heat that has remained since the Earth’s formation.
According to Paul Woskov, a senior fusion research engineer from MIT (2), there is harvestable geothermal energy, where there is access to heat. And there is so much heat below our planet’s surface.
“Tapping even only 0.1% of it can supply the entire world’s energy requirements for over 20 million years,” he added.
It is also worth highlighting that geothermal is considered a rare example of a reliable, 27/7 green power source when subterranean heat sources naturally occur near the surface and are easily accessible for a power grid to make an economically viable transmission.
For instance, even if we lose our sun, we will still have our hot core. However, there is an issue with access which makes the conditions mentioned above fairly rare. Consequently, geothermal only supplies about 0.3% of global energy consumption.
Even if we look at history, we have never drilled deep enough to put geothermal power stations anywhere globally. It is primarily because our planet’s crust has a thickness of about 5 to 75 km or 3 to 47 miles, with the thinnest parts tending to be way out in the deep ocean.
The deepest we have ever managed to drill is the Kola Superdeep Borehole, a Russian project near the Norwegian border that struck out in 1970 (3). This project aimed to puncture the crust right down to the mantle, and one of its boreholes drilled as much as 12,289 meters or 40,318 ft below the surface in 1989. However, the team decided that it is was not feasible to go any deeper and ran out of the fund.
Interestingly, the Kola team members expected the temperature to be around 100 °C at that depth. However, in reality, they found that it was closer to 180 °C or 356 °F. The rocks were also less dense and were more porous than expected.
And when we combine these factors with high heat, it builds nightmare drilling conditions. Today, the site is in complete disrepair.
Another example includes the German Continental Deep Drilling Program to KTB Borehole (4). In the late 80s, Germany spent the equivalent of more than a quarter of a billion euros, but it only got as far as 9,101 meters or 29,859 feet.
The temperature climbed far faster than anticipated, and the KTB team was astonished to observe that the rock at this depths was not solid. And the enormous amounts of fluid and gas rushing into the borehole further complicated the task.
Although these temperatures were hot enough to sabotage drilling, they were not hot enough to profit from geothermal energy.
Use of Directed Energy Beams
Researchers have been investigating the ability of directed energy beams to heat, melt, fracture, and even evaporate basement rock before the drill head even hits it. The process is called spallation, used for circumstances when it becomes too challenging for physical drill bits to work.
In the GIF below from Petra’s “Swifty” boring robot, you can see the effect of spallation on a resistant rock (5). However, Petra hasn’t disclosed what is utilized to generate that heat.
Military experiments in the late 1990s showed encouraging results, indicating that laser-assisted drilling might bore through rock 10 to 100 times quicker than traditional drilling, and oil and gas firms were keen to learn more.
In a 2014 MIT paper for the US DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Program, Impact Technologies president Kenneth Oglesby wrote (6): “A direct-energy drilling approach would offer some substantial advantages:
- no mechanical devices in the wellbore that could wear out or break
- no temperature constraints
- equal ease cutting any rock hardness
- the potential for a lasting vitrified liner to replace the need for casing/cementing”
Interestingly, a direct-energy drill would essentially cauterize the rock it cut through, melting the bore shaft as it went and vitrifying it into a glassy layer that would block out fluids, gases, and other pollutants that have created issues in previous ultra-deep drilling initiatives.
However, Oglesby also wrote about the limitations of lasers, “to date, lasers have only penetrated 30 cm or 11.8 inches into the rock. The lack of development in laser drilling is because of fundamental physics and technology issues. For starters, the rock extraction particle flow is incompatible with short-wavelength energy that is scattered and absorbed by dust and particulate clouds before even reaching the required rock surface. Second, laser technology is inefficient and inefficient, as well as being too costly.”
Gyrotron and Millimeter-wave Energy Beams
It appears that the solution could come from the world of nuclear fusion. Fusion researchers need to generate massive amounts of heat to replicate the circumstances that smash atoms together in the Sun’s core, releasing the safest and cleanest type of nuclear energy.
In the case of the ITER project, we’re talking about a sustained temperature of 150 million degrees (7).
Fusion research has benefited from billions of dollars in international government financing, accelerating progress and commercialization in areas that otherwise might not have received support.
The gyrotron, for example, is a piece of equipment developed in Soviet Russia in the mid-1960s. Gyrotrons produce millimeter-wave electromagnetic waves, with wavelengths shorter than microwaves but longer than visible or infrared light.
Researchers working on tokamak designs for fusion reactors recognized that millimeter waves were ideal for heating the plasma in the early 1970s (8). Gyrotron development has made great progress over the previous 50 years, thanks to impressive research in fusion and DOE financing.
Gyrotrons capable of generating continuous energy beams with a power of over a megawatt are now becoming available, which is particularly ideal for deep drillers.
It would be a big boost for standard oil and gas drilling projects. Simultaneously, it should also change the equation for ultra-deep drilling, making it practical and profitable to go deep enough into the crust to tap into some of the Earth’s enormous geothermal energy potential.
In 2018, MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center spun out a company called Quaise.
It specializes in ultra-deep geothermal drilling with hybrid systems that combine traditional rotary drilling with gyrotron-powered millimeter-wave technology and pumping in argon to purge gas to clean and cool the bore while firing rock particles back up to the surface and out of the way.
To date, the company has raised around 63 million USD, with 18 million in seed capital USD, 5 million USD in grants, and 40 million USD in a Series A fundraising round completed earlier this year (9).
Quaise intends to drill holes up to 20 km (12.4 miles) deep, substantially deeper than the Kola Superdeep Borehole. However, whereas the Kola team took over 20 years to achieve its limit, Quaise estimates its gyrotron-enhanced method to take just 100 days. And that’s assuming a gyrotron with a power of 1 MW.
Quaise expects temperatures of around 500 °C or 932 °F at this depths, which is considerably past the limit where geothermal energy becomes extremely efficient.
“At pressures more than 22 MPa and temperatures greater than 374 °C or 705 °F, water becomes a supercritical fluid,” Quaise explained. “When compared to non-supercritical facilities, a power plant that uses supercritical water as the working fluid can extract up to 10 times more useable energy from each drop. Supercritical conditions must be sought to achieve power densities comparable to fossil fuels.”
Quaise is developing full-scale, field-deployable demonstration machines that will start functioning in 2024, according to the company. By 2026, it hopes to have its first “super-hot enhanced geothermal system” with a capacity of 100 megawatts in operations.
Commercially Genius Idea of Quaise
Quaise intends to use existing infrastructure, such as coal-fired power stations, which will be phased out as pollution regulations tighten.
These plants already have massive steam-to-electricity conversion capacity, as well as established commercial operators and skilled workforces, and they’re already pre-connected to the power grid.
Without ever needing another lump of coal or puff of methane, Quaise will replace their current fossil fuel heat sources with enough supercritical geothermal energy to keep the turbines going perpetually.
Quaise plans to repower its first fossil-fired plant in 2028, then perfect and repeat the process worldwide, as the heat should be available anywhere on the planet with this drilling technique.
There are somewhere between 8,500 and 2,000 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants worldwide, and they’ll all have to find something else to do by 2050, so the opportunity is clearly enormous.
“In the coming decades, we’ll need a vast amount of carbon-free energy,” said Mark Cupta, Managing Director of Prelude Ventures, one of the company’s Series A key investors (10). “Quaise Energy is one of the most resource-efficient and nearly infinitely scalable energy systems available. It’s the ideal complement to our current renewable energy systems, allowing us to achieve baseload, long-term electricity in the not-too-distant future.”
Such a shift could be significant for clean energy baselines and decarbonization processes. Suppose this technology works out as anticipated, assuming that the Earth’s crust does not develop new ways to resist our incursions, and we work out the economics. In that case, this new application for gyrotrons may replace fusion reactors.
More importantly, in contrast to industrial-scale solar and wind, it will take up essentially minimal area on the surface. It will also cause a global geopolitical upheaval because every country will have access to its own essentially unlimited energy source.
It will be good when big countries don’t have to “liberate” the citizens of smaller countries to get access to energy resources.
The high initial price and seismic risks are two of geothermal energy’s drawbacks (11).
In Switzerland, South Korea, and France, similar projects, albeit using different technologies, generated earthquakes and were shut down.
However, supporters of geothermal energy argue that its steam production will be more reliable than solar and wind. Once installed, it will consume less than 1% of the land and resources used by other renewables. Quaise plans to drill near the Newberry Volcano in Oregon in the coming years, where geologists predict a shallow magma body lies only 6,500 to 16,500 feet beneath the surface (12).
The company wants to extend the technology worldwide to the 8,500 coal-fired power stations that will need to be repurposed by 2050. If successful, more than 2,000 gigawatts of energy will be available.
What are your thoughts about this development? Should India also initiate similar plans? Let us know in the comments below!