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Geothermal startup Quaise nabs $21 million for pilot prep

The company hopes to make geothermal “geography agnostic” by using high-power microwaves to vaporize rocks.

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Published
March 12, 2024
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Steam from geothermal

Photo credit: Department of Energy

Steam from geothermal

Photo credit: Department of Energy

MIT geothermal spinoff Quaise Energy announced today that it has closed on an additional $21 million in financing, led by Prelude Ventures and Safar Partners. This latest influx of cash will help the company get its first pilots off the ground and strengthen the supply chains for its drilling technology.

  • The top line: Quaise says its tech overcomes location constraints — one of the major hurdles of geothermal —  by using high-power microwaves to vaporize rocks and drill far deeper than traditional methodologies allow. This makes its its tech “geography agnostic,” according to the startup. Quaise is now focused on identifying the best locations for its first commercial pilot plants.
  • The market grounding: Geothermal is potentially capable of providing 8.5% of United States’ electricity generation by 2050, according to the Department of Energy, but currently accounts for just 0.4%. The technology is having something of a moment in the spotlight, in part due to investor interest in enhanced geothermal company Fervo Energy. A few weeks ago, Fervo announced a $244 million raise, following a partnership with Google that resulted in two wells in Nevada that are now sending energy to the grid that serves the company’s data centers. But most geothermal, including Fervo’s approach, doesn’t drill deep enough to reach hot enough rocks just anywhere. That’s where Quaise’s rock vaporizing tech comes in.
  • The current take: Mark Cupta, managing director at Prelude Ventures, which is an investor in both Fervo and Quaise, described Quaise’s approach as a major breakthrough in geothermal. “Quaise is the only company I know of that can make that [geographically agnostic] claim,” he said. “Quaise is unlocking the economics of super cheap, deep drilling, and getting to incredibly hot rock.” (Editor’s note: Prelude is also a lead investor in Latitude Media.)
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Geothermal has a much higher power density than other forms of renewable energy, and is more akin to coal plants or hydropower than to wind and solar. It has the potential to be a form of 24/7 baseload power, solving intermittency challenges that face new grid entrants like hyperscale data centers.

Quiase uses conventional rotary drilling to reach basement rock, and then high-power millimeter waves to vaporize boreholes through harder rocks like granite and basalt. A deep geothermal power plant, Quaise predicts, can create 10 times more energy than conventional geothermal, and, in theory, can be accessed anywhere in the world.

Time is of the essence

Geothermal deployment needs to move relatively quickly by energy standards to be ready to meet the moment for decarbonization. 

“I think the timing of geothermal is actually well-positioned to dovetail off the growth and explosion of wind, solar, and batteries that we’re seeing right now,” Cupta said, adding that the grid is going to require “the next step change” of energy resources toward the end of this decade.

That’s when smaller projects will start to pick up speed, led by Fervo and other traditional enhanced geothermal players. Then larger projects, reaching hundreds of megawatts or gigawatts of power, will likely come online in the 2030s. 

The first commercial deployment for Quaise will kick off in the late 2020s, he added. But time is short, and there’s still potential for complications.

The technology can drill down 20 kilometers, accessing temperatures of up to 500 degrees Celsius, Quaise says. And that deeper drilling, though it may make heat accessible in more regions, comes with higher risks. That said, in most cases, Quaise wouldn’t have to dig nearly that deep or reach those hottest temperatures to deploy commercially viable energy.

“Technical risk exists along a continuum,” Cupta said. “But it’s not 20 kilometers or bust.”

Regardless, those deeper depths are mostly theoretical at this point — Quaise is still in the demonstration stage. The original experiments conducted with Quaise’s vaporization tech at MIT have now been scaled up to 100 times, and the company will conduct field demonstrations later this year, but proving the tech’s reliability and value will take putting steel in the ground.

"You can't wholly validate a technology like this in a lab," Cupta added. "You need to get out there and start drilling holes in the earth, which is what we're doing right now. That's the true confirmation of the technology, and that's coming this year. I believe this demonstration unlocks a large amount of capital for this business."

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