You Can Have Geothermal Power Everywhere If You Drill Deep Enough

A new technology drills with microwaves and can go down 12 miles to where the real heat is.

Geothermal plant in Iceland
The Krafla geothermal power plant in Iceland.

Construction Photography / Getty Images

True geothermal energy is truly green. This is where you get heat from the Earth's core, which some have calculated is hotter than the surface of the sun. According to Treehugger's Kiah Treece, it’s estimated that heat located within the first 6.25 miles of the Earth’s surface contains 50,000 times more energy than the world’s oil and natural gas supplies.

What Is Geothermal Energy?

Taking its power from Earth’s core, geothermal energy is generated when hot water is pumped to the surface, converted into steam, and used to rotate an aboveground turbine. The motion of the turbine creates mechanical energy that is then converted into electricity using a generator. Geothermal energy can also be harvested directly from underground steam or using geothermal heat pumps, which use the warmth of the Earth to heat and cool homes.

The problem is it has only been practical in volcanic regions or near the edges of tectonic plates, where cracks in the Earth's crust allow steam to form close to the surface like in Iceland or the geysers in California. Then the heat can be used to drive turbines and generate power, instead of boiling water to make steam with coal or gas.

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

But Quaise Energy, a startup spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is applying new drilling technology to make it possible to get geothermal energy anywhere. They don't want to lily dip at 6.5 miles, either, but they want to go down 12 miles to where it is even hotter (930 degrees Fahrenheit) and anywhere in the world—perhaps right next to existing generating plants already attached to the grid. According to the press release:

“A rapid transition to clean energy is one of the biggest challenges faced by humanity,” said Arunas Chesonis, Managing Partner of Safar Partners. “Geothermal energy can provide a lot more power using fewer resources. We have to approach the clean energy transition from both of those angles. Quaise's solution makes us optimistic for a future where clean, renewable energy will secure the future of our planet.”

The key is the drilling technology, developed by Paul Woskov at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center. Instead of drill bits that will wear out or even melt, they drill with microwaves. As Quaise Energy describes it:

"Our gyrotron-powered drilling platform vaporizes boreholes through rock and provides access to deep geothermal heat without complex downhole equipment. Based on breakthrough fusion research and well-established drilling practices, we are developing a radical new approach to ultra-deep drilling. First, we use conventional rotary drilling to get to basement rock. Then, we switch to high-power millimeter waves to reach unprecedented depths."

The microwave beam is hot enough to evaporate rock, and the vaporized rock is pumped back to the surface. Meanwhile, the heat vitrifies the side of the hole, turning it essentially into a glass pipe. According to Jason Dorrier of The Singularity Hub, once you have access to the supercritical steam you can generate at 12 miles deep, the rest is straightforward.

"Quaise’s long-term plan is to approach power plants running on fossil fuels and offer to drill geothermal fields customized to match their existing equipment. The fields sit on a footprint 100 to 1,000 times less than what’s needed for solar or wind. Once hooked up, it’s basically business as usual: turbines create electricity and feed it to the grid—and our homes, cars, and businesses—via existing infrastructure."

Quaise notes the oil and gas workforce has the skills to do this; the energy is truly renewable, abundant, and available everywhere; and should be up and running by 2028. The press release states:

"Quaise Energy is terawatt-scale geothermal. We’re opening access to renewable, baseload power from anywhere on planet Earth. Deep geothermal uses less than 1% of the land and materials of other renewables, making it the only option for a sustainable clean energy transition."

Quaise just raised $40 million, which almost seems a pittance for such technology, and will be used to demonstrate the capabilities of the technology by 2024.

"This funding round brings us closer to providing clean, renewable baseload energy," said Carlos Araque, CEO and co-founder of Quaise Energy. "Our technology allows us to access energy anywhere in the world, at a scale far greater than wind and solar, enabling future generations to thrive in a world powered with abundant clean energy."

Is This for Real?

This Treehugger has complained about Bill Gates' technophilia and his belief that we should look for “the big technological changes that would ensure long-term success.” I tend to agree with philosopher Rupert Read who writes about "technotopian" solutions: "Allegedly, technological innovation sprung from within the rich world will eventually “solve” climate change. This is why long-termists such as billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn urge us to worry less than we do about the climate."

But I also know that geothermal power generation works; I have seen it in Iceland. What's new and different here is the drill, and if it works, a lot of us "tech won't save us" types are going to have to change our tunes.