Volume 27, No.2, Summer 2009

Drill bits bite the dust

As the push for green energy continues to gain momentum, new wind and solar projects are popping up as quickly as dandelions. It seems most everyone is gazing skyward for salvation, yet one form of carbon-free energy still lays waiting beneath our feet. Geothermal energy never gained much traction with the tech types or the venture capitalists, but that may all be about to change.

Bob Potter, who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico during World War II, is using some of his experience on the Manhattan Project to solve current energy problems. Potter, 88, and his son Jared, 56, a Stanford-trained geologist, have developed a new form of deep-drilling technology that can tap geothermal heat miles below the earth’s surface.

Geothermal power plants use the hot water trapped underground to create steam that turns electricity- turbines. This technology is more common in the western United States where the hot water lies closer to the surface. Potter’s new technology, however, could make it possible to drill far deeper than before, making geothermal energy accessible anywhere in the country.

Drilling is the most expensive part of developing geothermal energy. In some instances, companies drill through up to six miles of hard rock only to break a drill bit and have to abandon the project. Damage at that depth is typically too costly to repair. Potter has circumvented this problem by replacing the conventional drill bit with super-heated water up to 800 degrees centigrade (lead melts at 327 degrees centigrade). The water is then forced through a nozzle, creating a stream of high-pressure super-heated water that can fracture granite with ease.

The new technology is already attracting attention. A 2006 study from MIT predicted that “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” such as Potter’s could supply as much as 2,500 times the nation’s current energy consumption, and Google Ventures has invested $4 million in Potter Drilling. One more bit of good news—Jared Potter estimates he can cut the cost of drilling in half by eliminating breakable parts and reducing drilling time.

For those with any loose change, the company will soon be looking for investors to commercialize its technology.

More information is available at potterdrilling.com

In “Greener Pastures,” PERC’s director of media relations LINDA PLATTS presents green ventures from the audacious to the sublime.

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