Geothermal Energy Direct Drilling – an ARPA-e funded research project by AltaRock Energy

Well at the Newberry project site in Oregon - not related to story directly (source: AltaRock Energy)
Alexander Richter 11 Dec 2019

A U.S. DOE funded project by AltaRock Energy is seeking to overcome technical limitations to deep geothermal drilling, replacing mechanical methods with a millimeter wave directed energy technology to melt and vaporize rocks for removal.

Under the category, hidden gems – we were sent this link to an exciting project that seems to have missed out on a bit publicity. This project by AltaRock Energy under funding from 2018, with a project term 2019-2022, has received funding of USD 3.9m for work on Millimeter Wave Technology Demonstration for Geothermal Directed Energy Drilling.

Critical Need:

Geothermal energy is a potentially vast source of clean baseload electricity in the U.S. However, it is difficult and expensive to penetrate the ultra-hard rock formations found at many prospective geothermal sites. Conventional drill bits penetrate ultra-hard rock formations slowly and wear down quickly, which makes the drilling process time consuming and expensive. More economical drilling methods are required to enable access to next-generation energy resources, such as enhanced geothermal systems.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

AltaRock Energy will overcome technical limitations to deep geothermal drilling by replacing mechanical methods with a Millimeter Wave (MMW) directed energy technology to melt and vaporize rocks for removal. This approach could increase drilling speed by 10 times or more, reducing costs while reaching higher temperatures and greater depths than those achievable with the best current and proposed mechanical technologies. Project R&D will include benchtop testing as well as larger scale demonstrations of directed MMW drilling at unprecedented borehole lengths and power levels. A detailed modeling and simulations campaign carried out with the experimental work will provide the basis for the design of larger, commercial-scale systems.

Potential Impact:

Successful completion of project objectives will advance the technological maturity of unique high-power MMW energy physics and engineering needed for geothermal energy mining in very deep, high pressure subterranean environments.


Just 0.1% of the heat content of Earth could supply humanity’s total energy needs for 2 million years. Accordingly, minor extraction of the energy available via geothermal energy could provide substantial contributions to U.S. energy needs long-term.


Supercritical enhanced geothermal systems represent an untapped energy source that can produce carbon-free geothermal energy.


Advances in MMW directed energy drilling could vastly improve the economics and reach of geothermal energy, which could become a more significant source of electricity.

Source: ARPA-e/ DOE