Unlocking geothermal energy through disruptive, hybrid deep drilling technology.
Our generation lives at a crossroads. Take one path and, within 15 years, we exhaust the planet’s carbon budget for a 1.5C global temperature increase, exacerbating with terrible certainty the effects of climate change we see today. Take the other path, unbridling the power of inexhaustible emissions-free energy, and we keep the worst at bay. But that latter path, the one in which we do away with fossil fuels, will require solutions with far more power density than current renewable energy sources like wind and solar will be able to provide without widespread baseload energy storage.
Enter geothermal energy. If we dig deep enough, we can harness this thermal energy with power densities consistent with fossil fuels. These conditions exist everywhere on the planet at depths of 10-20 kilometers. Quaise, a startup born from research at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, is pioneering a new type of energy drilling system in order to reach the depths necessary to exploit the largest source of power-dense clean energy on Earth.
There are few experimental sites on the planet, like Russia’s Kola Superdeep Borehole, that have drilled over 10 kilometers deep using conventional methods. Quaise hopes to dig even deeper in just 100 days, orders of magnitude faster than such experiments. To do it, they will need much more than a tough drill bit.
Carlos Araque, co-founder and CEO, was introduced to the experimental work of Paul Woskov (a scientific co-founder) in 2017. Woskov, working at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, pioneered a technique of using electromagnetic waves to blast through rock. The waves are generated by a gyrotron — a large machine that is frequently used in industrial settings for heating and curing processes, as well as in nuclear fusion experiments, and for defense purposes.
Araque, who holds an engineering degree from MIT, spent nearly 15 years working for Schlumberger, one of the world’s foremost providers of drilling services to the oil and gas industry. It was his time in the traditional energy industry — seeing its consequences from the inside — that drove him to lead a clean energy company. And his technical expertise helped him recognize the potential of Woskov’s innovations and the possibilities of a hybrid boring platform.
“We’re not replacing what currently exists, instead we are using it to our advantage to give us a 100-year head start,” Araque notes. “We’re also building a global team, leveraging the best drilling, plasma physics, and gyrotron experts in the world — with members and partners in Boston, Houston, US National Labs and Cambridge, UK.”
While Quaise’s core innovation is its gyrotron-powered millimeter-wave energy drilling system, it plans to harness the established infrastructure, supply chain, and expertise of the oil and gas industry. The traditional energy industry has been drilling holes up to five kilometers deep for decades. Their tools and techniques are refined and already deployed at scale.
Using conventional technology, Quaise plans to drill up to five kilometers. Once there, it will deploy its energy drilling system to reach depths of 10-20 kilometers. It is a straightforward plan, but one that requires leaps in technical innovation and excellent engineering and operational execution.
As an early-stage Tough Tech startup, Quaise must complete many of its scaling experiments in the lab before it tests its technology on site. It hopes to have its gyrotron-powered drilling platform refined enough by 2023 to drill through more than a meter of rock. From there, it is a matter of scaling in size and power.
Matthew Houde, a co-founder and geologist, remains undaunted. He notes that for millennia the Earth has shown us that stable holes of incredible depth are possible. Volcanoes draw their power from far deeper.
The transition from fossils fuels to emissions-free energy represents an existential challenge — one that must be solved if future generations are to inhabit a flourishing planet. While renewable energy sources like wind and solar provide potential alternatives to fossil fuels, there is simply not enough landmass for them to be deployed at the scale necessary to supplant the current dominant energy sources. Supercritical geothermal energy, with its small land footprint and ability to harness over 100 years of fossil fuel drilling, surveying, and transmission infrastructure, represents a potential power source too compelling to ignore.