Gyrotron Geothermal Drilling: Implications for mining, oil and gas, and hydrogen production
Explaining gyrotron geothermal drilling
In plasma-based nuclear fusion reactors, in order to heat plasma to temperatures often exceeding 100 million K, gyrotrons generate millimeter electromagnetic waves which produce large amounts of heat. At these extreme temperatures, all types of solid matter vaporize rapidly.
An MIT startup, Quaise, is applying this same principle to drilling. By using gyrotrons to vaporize geological formations, Quaise is attempting to drill 12 miles deep into the Earth, about twice as far as ever reached before in order to harvest unprecedented amounts of geothermal energy at temperatures around 500 C. Compared to traditional projects that would normally take multiple years or even decades to complete, gyrotron drilling is much quicker, capable of making similar sized boreholes in just months.
Although just beginning to test the waters, if ultimately successful at scale, Quaise’s gyrotron based drilling systems could provide a renewable energy solution which would eventually be able to provide 100% of the world’s energy demand. Many industries from mining, production of hydrogen through electrolysis, orange hydrogen, white hydrogen, oil and gas drilling, and nuclear fusion would be significantly disrupted by such a new large and natural supply of renewable energy and the emergence of groundbreaking drilling technology.
In the following, we discuss Quaise’s process in more detail as well as the broader implications of gyrotron geothermal drilling technology for the mining, oil and gas, and hydrogen industries and how Alicat devices can add value to the functionality of these systems, especially at the research level pertaining to system design and optimization.
Quaise’s gyrotron geothermal drilling process
How gyrotron drilling works
The main components in Quaise’s novel gyrotron geothermal drilling system include a gyrotron, purge gas, a waveguide, and a vitrified borehole produced by the drilling process. The gyrotron generates the heat while the waveguide functions as the main piping system to deliver the heat producing wavelengths. Argon purge gas cleans and cools the borehole while simultaneously ejecting rock particles to clean the drilling pathway.
Research and development of these systems can be improved by using Alicat mass flow controllers to determine ideal purge gas flow rates and to leak test components.
Purge gas flow control
By minimizing purge gas use, system cost is reduced. As a result, by using Alicat’s mass flow controllers to precisely and accurately control the flow of cold Argon gas, researchers can determine the optimal amount of purge gas to use throughout the gyrotron drilling process. Some major advantages of MC-Series for this application include:
- Accuracy up to ±0.6% of reading or ±0.1% of full scale, whichever is greater
- Repeatability up to ±0.1% of reading + 0.02% of full scale
- Full-scale options from 0.5 SCCM to 5,000 SLPM
Another use of Alicat devices for gyrotron drilling research includes the leak testing of system components. Pressure decay and mass flow leak tests can be designed to determine if parts are leaking within tolerance.
In pressure decay leak testing, a DUT (system component) is pressurized to a specific pressure point and then isolated from its pressure source by closing an inlet valve. A pressure transducer such as M-Series reads the pressure drop over time, corresponding to a specific leak rate.
Alternatively, there are a few methods of mass flow leak testing which can be used for this process.
In the first method, an air supply is connected to a DUT through a flow line with a PC3 pressure controller and either an M-Series or MW-Series mass flow meter. The PC3 is upstream of the mass flow meter and plumbed to sense pressure downstream of the mass flow controller. The pressure controller brings the DUT to a constant pressure while the mass flow meter displays the associated leak rate.
In the second method, an air supply is connected to a DUT through a flow line with a single MC-Series or MCW-Series mass flow controller maintaining a constant pressure while reading out an associated leak rate in real-time. Compared to the previous mass flow method, this one is less suitable for larger systems with low leak rates since more stabilization time is required to test operating pressure.
Implications for mineral mining
In addition to its uses for geothermal energy production, gyrotron drilling could also disrupt and revolutionize several mineral mining practices.
For traditional mining operations, gyrotron drills could be used to more quickly and easily construct mines, especially in difficult to reach environments for other types of traditional drilling machinery.
Additionally, gyrotron drilling could also help to improve novel mineral mining methods such as biomining. By using high power gyrotron based drilling systems, boreholes could be made quickly to sparge special microbes generated from bioreactors to capture important metals such as copper or gold.
Implications for the oil and gas industry
By using high power gyrotron based drilling systems, the oil and gas industry could potentially bore into compressed geological formations which are traditionally inaccessible using current methods, allowing for access to new and deep reserves of oil and natural gas.
Another benefit of gyrotron drilling for the oil and gas industry would be that due to the quicker drilling process, projects which previously would be unprofitable on certain timescales could now provide a greater return on investment.
Additionally, gyrotron drilling could also allow for the oil and gas industry to create fast and deep boreholes for CO2 sequestration, thus helping to lower greenhouse gas emissions and to limit the harm of climate change while simultaneously saving companies money through tax incentives.
In contrast, since Quaise’s process may eventually scale to produce large amounts of clean, renewable geothermal energy, it is also possible that gyrotron drilling will lower the long-term demand for hydrocarbons. As a result, the scaling of this technology may become a large threat to the oil and gas industries over time.
Implications for the hydrogen industry
Quaise’s novel gyrotron drilling geothermal energy production methods could also act simultaneously as a compliment and substitute to renewable hydrogen production.
As a compliment, geothermal energy from gyrotron drilling could be used as a clean hydrogen generation power source. Applications such as electrolysis, pyrolysis, and nuclear fusion could all benefit.
As a substitute, once scaled, gyrotron drilling geothermal energy could also threaten to lower the demand for many current uses for hydrogen as a potentially cheaper and more straightforward alternative.
Moreover, in the hydrogen industry, gyrotron based drilling may lead to technological development for current orange and white hydrogen production processes. For white hydrogen production, gyrotron based drilling could be used to create boreholes to capture natural hydrogen, with similar benefits as those discussed for oil and gas drilling and mineral mining. For orange hydrogen, gyrotron based drilling will help to more quickly and efficiently tunnel into iron-rich geological formations, allowing for hydrogen production while simultaneously sequestering CO2.
Just as in Quaise’s drilling process, purge gases supporting hydrogen production could be controlled during the boring process using Alicat mass flow controllers, allowing for precise, accurate supply of purging gas.