For many scientists, green energy is the wave of the future. A wealth of power, in the form of geothermal energy, is locked several thousand feet inside the earth. Unleashing the potential of geothermal energy by converting it into renewable steam power has been prohibitively expensive, as traditional drilling is currently the only way to reach it. Estimates on costs to reach this renewable energy source, that could have the potential to replace fossil fuels, range from $5 million to $20 million depending on how far the drilling would go.
This may all change soon, thanks to the Washington-based drilling technology company HyperSciences offering a more efficient and less expensive idea that involves repeatedly firing projectiles into the earth’s crust. HyperSciences CEO Mark Russell claims the method, which would involve constructing a massive gun called a ram accelerator, would be ten times faster than traditional drilling. The company received a patent for this projectile-based system that, theoretically, would have the capability of accelerating projectiles to speeds higher than 18,000 mph. Shell Oil Company’s GameChanger program recently funded further research on the project with a $1 million grant.
The ram accelerator serves as the chamber and barrel of this huge gun. A projectile with an abrasive core is loaded into the chamber and gases are pumped into the accelerator. The gases are ignited, pressurizing the chamber as the bullet passes through. This in turn sends the projectile into the ground at nearly 4,500 mph, obliterating sedimentary rock and anything else in its path, while the resulting debris is sucked back out of the hole. Russell, who is an aerospace engineer, has indicated that plastic explosives could be included in the tip to significantly increase the drilling power of the apparatus. Embedded sensors for gauging temperature and exact depth of the geothermal resources are other design options being considered.
The US Department of Energy has suggested that geothermal power could provide up to 100 GW of energy in the US alone, however accessing these resources has proven challenging. To reach these reserves, the ram accelerator would fire repeatedly until reaching the desired depth. Multiple accelerators could fire simultaneously or in conjunction with traditional drills. The technique will reportedly save money on equipment wear and breakage along with cutting down the amount of time needed to get to the energy source.
There are still questions regarding what the environmental impact would be. Multiple concussive blasts could have a negative effect on the subterranean environment, groundwater and geology. The technology is still in testing phases, but, as HyperSciences prepares to test and demonstrate this innovative technique, the buzz among potential investors suggests a promising future for this largely-untapped resource.