Upstate New York has an abandoned coal power plant that most people regard as a waste relic. But MIT’s Paul Voskov sees things differently.
Voskov, a research engineer at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, noted that the plant’s power turbines are still intact and the transmission lines still run to the grid. Using the approach he’s been working on for the past 14 years, he’s hoping it will be back online completely carbon-free within the decade.
In fact, Quais Energy, the company that commercialized Voskov’s work, believes that if it could retrofit a power plant, the same process would work at nearly every coal and gas power plant in the world.
Quaise is hoping to accomplish those lofty goals by tapping into the energy source beneath our feet. The company plans to vaporize enough rock to create the world’s deepest hole and generate geothermal energy on a scale large enough to meet human energy consumption for millions of years. They haven’t solved all the associated engineering challenges yet, but Quais’s founders have set an ambitious timeline to begin harvesting energy from a pilot well by 2026.
It would be easier to dismiss the plan as unrealistic if it were based on a new and unproven technology. But Quais’s drilling system is centered around a microwave-emitting device called a gyrotron that has been used in research and manufacturing for decades.
“When we solve the immediate engineering problems of transmitting a clean beam and making it operate at high energy densities without breaking, it will happen quickly,” explains Voskov, who formally calls Quais. Not affiliated with, but serves as a consultant. “This will move rapidly as the underlying technology, the gyrotron, is commercially available. You can place an order with a company and have a system delivered right now – granted, 24/7 access to these beam sources anytime Not done, but they are engineered to last longer. In five or six years, I think if we solve these engineering problems we’ll have a plant running. I’m very optimistic. “
Voskov and several other researchers have been using gyrotrons to heat materials in nuclear fusion experiments for decades. It was not until 2008, however, that Voskov thought about using the gyrotron for a new application, after the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) published a request for proposals on new geothermal drilling technologies.
,[Gyrotrons] Not well publicized in the general science community, but those of us in fusion research understand that they were very powerful beam sources—like lasers, but in a different frequency range,” Voskov says. “I thought, Why not direct these high-powered beams down into the rock instead of the fusion plasma and vaporize the hole?”
As electricity from other renewable energy sources has exploded in recent decades, geothermal energy has declined, mainly because geothermal plants exist only in places where natural conditions extend up to 400 feet below the Earth’s surface. Allows for energy extraction at relatively shallow depths. At a certain point, conventional drilling becomes impractical because the deeper crust is both hot and hard, which tends to corrode mechanical drill bits.
Voskov’s idea of using gyrotron beams to vaporize rock sent him on a research journey that never really stopped. With some funding from MITEI, he began running tests, quickly filling his office with tiny rock formations, which he blasted with millimeter waves from a small gyrotron at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center.
Around 2018, Voskov rocks the attention of Carlos Arak ’01, SM ’02, who had spent his career in the oil and gas industry and was at the time technical director of MIT’s investment fund The Engine.
That year, Arak and Matt Houde, who had been working with geothermal company Altrock Energy, founded Quais. Quais was soon given a grant by the Department of Energy to support Voskov’s experiments using a larger gyrotron.
With the larger machine, the team hopes to vaporize it to a depth 10 times the depth of Voskov’s lab experiments. Which is expected to be completed by the end of this year. After that, the team will vaporize a hole 10 times the depth of the previous one—what Houde calls a 100-to-1 hole.
“this is some [the DOE] of particular interest, as they seek to address the challenges posed by removing material at those greater lengths – in other words, can we show that we are completely expelling rock vapor?” explains Houde. “We believe the 100-to-1 test also gives us the confidence to go out and mobilize a prototype gyrotron drilling rig in the field for the first field demonstrations.”
Tests on the 100-to-1 hole are expected to be completed sometime next year. Quais is also hoping to begin rock evaporation in field tests late next year. The short timeline shows the progress Voskov has already made in his laboratory.
Although more engineering research is needed, eventually, the team hopes to be able to safely drill and operate these geothermal wells. “We believe, because of Paul’s work at MIT over the past decade, that most of the core physics questions have not been answered and addressed,” Houde says. “It’s really an answer to engineering challenges, which doesn’t mean they’re easy to solve, but we’re not working against the laws of physics, to which there is no answer. It’s important to do this work on a large scale.” It’s just a matter of overcoming some of the more technical and cost considerations.”
The company plans to begin harvesting energy from experimental geothermal wells that reach rock temperatures of up to 500 C by 2026. From there, the team hopes to begin reusing coal and natural gas plants using their system.
“We believe, if we can drill down to 20 kilometers, we can reach these super-hot temperatures in more than 90 percent of places around the world,” Houde says.
Quais’s work with the DOE is addressing what he sees as the biggest remaining questions about drilling holes of unprecedented depth and pressure, such as how best to remove material and keep the hole stable and open. Determining cover. For the latter problem of good stability, Houde believes additional computer modeling is needed and expects that modeling to be completed by the end of 2024.
By drilling holes in existing power plants, Quays would be able to move faster if it were to obtain permits to build new plants and transmission lines. And by adapting their millimeter-wave drilling equipment to an existing global fleet of drilling rigs, it will also allow the company to tap into the oil and gas industry’s global workforce.
“at these high temperatures” [we’re accessing]”We’re producing steam very close to, if not higher, the temperature at which today’s coal and gas-fired power plants operate,” Houde says. You can go in and say, ‘We can replace 95 to 100 percent of your coal use by developing a geothermal field and producing steam from the Earth, at the same temperature you’re burning coal to run your turbine. Huh. , directly replacing carbon emissions.”
Transforming the world’s energy systems in such a short amount of time is something the founders consider important to help avoid the most catastrophic global warming scenarios.
“There have been tremendous gains in renewable energy over the past decade, but the big picture today is that we are not moving fast enough to hit the milestones needed to limit the worst effects of climate change, Haude says. ,[Deep geothermal] is a power resource that can scale anywhere and has the potential to tap into a large workforce in the energy industry to easily repurpose their skills for a completely carbon-free energy source.