You might have vaguely heard of geothermal energy, often considered the Earth’s most abundant clean energy source. But beyond that, communication goes cold. There aren’t a lot of companies working on harnessing geothermal energy, renewable energy experts talking about geothermal energy, or media outlets covering the work in geothermal energy. A new geothermal startup, Quaise, hopes to change that.
Earlier today, Quaise announced it raised a $6 million seed round from The Engine, Vinod Khosla, and Collaborative Fund to tackle the drilling problem — one that has prevented us from being able to harness geothermal from most parts of the planet.
To learn more about Quaise’s progress to-date, why the company chose its three investors to partner with, and more, I sat down with Quaise CEO Carlos Araque.
Geothermal’s biggest challenges
There are a lot of challenges when it comes to geothermal’s drilling processes. For instance, “The most expensive problem routinely encountered in geothermal drilling is lost circulation, which is the loss of drilling fluid to pores or fractures in the rock formations being drilled,” Sandia National Laboratories notes in an article. But other challenges include high temperature and other failure models.
Additionally, Araque says there are three main technical challenges that stand in the way of making geothermal ubiquitous:
- Universal access to high-grade heat
- Efficient retrieval of this heat from the rock
- Cheaper supercritical turbines for the conversion of supercritical steam to electricity
But the challenges aren’t just technical — there are regulatory ones too. “This is a new frontier and we need to start the discussion around how to manage heat resources in an area of the lithosphere we have never been,” Araque shares.
Quaise’s founding team
Keeping in mind geothermal’s toughest challenges, MIT Research Engineer Paul Woskov spent more than a decade researching the future of geothermal energy. He also spent a lot of time looking into how current methods of drilling would change.
“Woskov first suggested using gyrotrons to melt and vaporize hard crystalline rock upon reading The Future of Geothermal Energy report sponsored by the Department of Energy and received a grant from The MIT Energy Initiative to validate his ideas in the lab,” according to Quaise’s press release.
“In 2017, Paul Woskov was introduced to Carlos Araque and Matt Houde via Aaron Mandell from AltaRock Energy and, in 2018, Aaron, Carlos and Matt collectively founded Quaise to pursue further development and commercialization of the technology.”
How Quaise will tackle geothermal’s drilling challenges
In order to tackle the technical challenges associated with drilling, Quaise is “developing and commercializing a hybrid deep drilling method that was invented at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center,” the company shares in its press release.
“Its breakthrough technology uses a gyrotron to generate millimetric electromagnetic waves for drilling at depths beyond what can be accomplished today with conventional drilling.”
In other words, the company’s technology has already been proven at some scale at MIT. So, over the next few years, Araque says Quaise will use a “DOE grant to push validation to 10x and 100x current depth.”
Why Quaise partnered with The Engine, Vinod Khosla, and Collaborative Fund
What’s interesting about a lot of hard-tech businesses is that investors just don’t get it. And smaller funds just aren’t willing to bet significant check sizes on companies with high technological risk.
So that’s why Quaise partnered with The Engine, Vinod Khosla, and Collaborative Fund.
- The Engine is an early-stage “Tough Tech” venture firm that spun out of MIT
- Vinod Khosla, the Founder of Sun Microsystems and Khosla Ventures, has a reputation for making early-stage bets on hard-tech businesses
- Collaborative Fund previously invested in residential geothermal startup Dandelion Energy’s Series A
“There aren’t many investors in the world willing to tackle these sorts of things. It has always been the realm of government funding. Our investors have a clear commitment to world-changing ideas with deep economic and societal impact. These ideas take capital, patience and committed teams, attributes that our three major investors have.”Quaise CEO Carlos Araque tells me what drew him to his company’s Seed investors in an email exchange
Araque tells me Quaise will allocate its $6 million seed capital to address three main priorities:
- Technology: demonstrate 10x and 100x drilling milestones
- Product: flesh out the hybrid drilling operation with oil and gas partners
- Team: build up product team in Houston, core millimeter wave technology team in Boston and modeling team in Cambridge, UK