Geothermal. Tapping into the Earth's heat. It's basically free, completely clean energy. Why isn't everyone doing it? All you have to do is drill down through the Earth's crust to get to it. Oh, right. Drilling's expensive. Really expensive, especially if you have to drill a long way down. But new Washington State based drilling technology company called HyperSciences, might be about to change that. Headed by Mark Russell, an aeronautical engineer, the firm has recently applied for a patent on an entirely new type of drilling technology. To be more precise, though it does the same thing as a drill, it doesn't actually use a drill at all. It's a ram accelerator, a very specialized sort of gun that will be used to blast very deep holes in the ground, enabling access geothermal resources at much lower expense than traditional drilling techniques. Russell has told the press that geothermal power is the wave of the future, and not just for heating and cooling buildings and creating electricity. He thinks we may one day use it to make space travel commonplace.
It seems Shell Oil may actually be interested in diversifying. Maybe they know something about the end of oil that the rest of us don't. In any case, they're underwriting HyperSciences research with a grant. It's actually not too far off the beam for Shell. Even if Shell sticks with oil, they still have to get through the Earth's crust to get to it. Whether they're looking to move into geothermal or keep drilling oil, or both, if there's a technology that will allow them to "drill" more cheaply, it's in Shell's best interest to pursue it.
The video above shows how a ram accelerator could be used to launch a projectile into space.
Here's how the HyperSciences technology works. A projectile is loaded into a ram accelerator (that's the gun). Gas is pumped into the ram accelerator and ignited. This causes the pressure in the chamber to increase and pushes the projectile forward. Okay, fairly standard "gun" technology. But unlike traditional firing mechanisms, in this gun, which is actually a form of ramjet technology, the accelerator is used as both a barrel and chamber, enabling it to launch its projectiles at speeds up to 4,500 mph. The projectiles vaporize themselves and whatever they strike. One shot creates a hole in the ground. Multiple shots create deeper and deeper holes, all at much lower cost than traditional drilling techniques. Russell's team is also looking into the possibly adding plastic explosives to the projectile to increase the hole depth with each shot. Russell claims that once he and his team get it right, the system could be used to access geothermal resources even if they're two miles down.
The only places where Geothermal power has been financially viable up to this point have been places like Iceland, where the Earth's magma isn't very far below the surface. In those places it is being harnessed to vast and excellent effect. But not all geographic areas have such easy access to the geothermal riches below them. This is the key. Drilling using traditional drilling techniques gets more and more expensive the deeper you go. That may explain why companies like Shell are taking new ideas like the ram accelerator seriously, and even funding them.