WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
There is a race on to increase the speed of boring tunnels by at least ten fold, and if it can be achieved it will change the economics of energy generation and transportation.
Google announced recently, quietly, very quietly, that it’s carrying out research on hypersonic technology, and strangely, in what has to be a hat tip to Elon Musk and The Boring Company exploits, it looks as though the giant is looking to use hypersonic technology to help it dig tunnels at least ten times faster than we can today so it can access geothermal energy stores buried deep underground and boost its green energy credentials, a goal that it hit, ironically, last year. Furthermore, and adding even more fuel to the fire are the rumours that suggest that Google might soon acquire a Washington based start up called HyperSciences that has already built prototype boring machines that use hypersonic projectiles to smash the rock in front of them to dig tunnels several kilometers in length in days not months.
In January, Google signed a US $100,000 Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley saying that “Google’s research division is doing a conceptual exploration of hypersonic trajectories in high Reynolds number ablation regimes,” and calls for NASA to “perform an analysis of a hypersonic projectile traveling through dense space.”
How HyperDrill Works
Hypersonics refers to anything travelling five times the speed of sound or faster, and usually refers to extremely high speed aircraft or weapons, such as Boeing’s unmanned X51 scramjet or the new Russian ballistic missile that Vladimir Putin boasted about last week.
However, in this case the lead researcher at Google, Chris Vanarsdale, who’s working on the project is focused on climate and energy R&D rather than aerospace.
HyperSciences that was spun out of the University of Washington, also in Seattle, a little while ago and they’ve been developing a novel drilling system that fires concrete projectiles at over 2 kilometers per second in ahead of the boring machine’s drill bit and they claim their system can drill deep wells up to 10 times faster than existing systems, enabling geothermal energy “anywhere in the world.”
When contacted by journalists HyperSciences founder and CEO Mark Russell said, “We have been spending some time with [Google],” and he said he would be sharing more details soon.
Since it was founded in 2015, HyperSciences has raised more than $2.8 million in early stage investments and received at least $1 million from Shell’s GameChanger incubator and it currently has a $1.9 million Series A funding round open.
Google’s parent company Alphabet has long had an interest in geothermal energy, as does NASA who recently suggested a novel approach for tapping enough energy from the Yellowstone supervolcano to power all of the US for decades to come. Last July, Alphabet’s moonshot X division launched a company called Dandelion that is already selling domestic geothermal systems to homes in New York state. Dandelion’s systems send water about 150 meters down plastic pipes to reach stable temperatures of 10 degrees C (50 degress F) underground. A heat pump above then uses that water to efficiently warm the house in winter or cool it during the summer.
The technology being developed by HyperSciences would make it cheaper to reach much higher temperatures even deeper down, up to 7 kilometers below the surface. Every few seconds, a concrete projectile is boosted down the drill shaft at over Mach 5 by a combustible mixture of air and diesel gases. The projectile then vaporizes cleanly at the rock face, breaking it up.
Once the well is complete, pipes containing silicone oil rather than water would transfer heat to the surface, where thermoelectric generators would convert it directly into electricity. HyperSciences says such a system will be more efficient than solar panels or wind turbines, and cheaper than conventional carbon-based power stations.
HyperSciences is also developing a tunnelling system using the same hypersonic projectile technology and claims that its so-called Hyper Tunnel Boring and Mining System will be five times cheaper than today’s tunnel boring machines, and will be able to dig tunnels much faster.
Google’s agreement with NASA called for the agency to use a database it had developed for the reentry of spacecraft into the Earth’s atmosphere, to simulate the path of variously shaped hypersonic projectiles. NASA would also assess possible thermal protection systems, presumably for the rest of the drilling system. NASA’s work on the Google project might already be over though as the entire process was due to have taken as little as seven weeks, and cost Google $99,489.
Of course, Google’s hypersonic research may have nothing to do with HyperSciences but the join the dots game is fun and stranger things have happened in the past. Google would not comment on any potential business relationships but noted that its researchers frequently collaborate with outside researchers and companies, without that leading to an investment or acquisition.