Jared, left, and Bob Potter founded Potter Drilling in 2004. The company has received financial backing from Google.org to develop innovative geothermal technologies. | Photo courtesy of Potter Drilling |
Few start-ups are founded by retirement-aged scientists – and even fewer have Google.org backing.
That's the unique position of Potter Drilling, a start-up founded in 2004 by a pioneering now-90-year-old and his son.
With funding from Google.org and a Recovery Act grant, Potter Drilling is developing innovative technologies aimed at making geothermal energy exploration and development cheaper, more efficient and widely available.
"All the people that work here believe if we are successful in developing this technology, we will have a significant impact on how power is generated in the U.S and how it is consumed," says Mark Hankowski, Potter Drilling's vice president of business development.
"And the end game is that it will benefit the environment," he says.
Drilling with water
In August, the company began testing a new geothermal drilling method - called hydrothermal spallation – in Raymond, Calif., by using superheated water to break through rock, boring a four-inch hole 1,000 feet into the ground. The Redwood City, Calif.-based firm seeks to drill three wells at the site.
Since the technology requires superheated water instead of diamond drill bits, it's more cost effective and efficient than traditional drilling.
A hydrothermal spallation system developed by Potter Drilling is shown during a lab trial. The technology is currently being tested in Raymond, Calif. | Photo courtesy of Potter Drilling
In rotary drilling, bits can wear out as fast as they grind against jagged edges of hard rock and may need to be replaced as little as every 100 feet, adding time and costs to the process.
Hydrothermal spallation drilling relies on a jet of superheated water to bore into the earth's subsurface. This system reduces wear on equipment and in the laboratory has demonstrated penetration rates of at least three times the industry standard. "Because it's non-contact, we can do some things that are extremely hard to do in traditional drilling," Hankowski explains.
From Los Alamos to Redwood City
The technology's mastermind is Bob Potter, who started his scientific career by working on the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb during World War II. During his time at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, Potter discovered new ways to drill for materials found in the subsurface, which laid the foundation for his career in geothermal technology.
"My work at Los Alamos gave me exposure to energy and climate change problems long before they were debated on the national stage," Potter says.
"As I learned about geothermal power, I began to appreciate its potential to solve almost every problem I had come across. Problems like capacity and availability; CO2 emissions and pollution; and use of domestic resources are all solved by geothermal power," he adds.
In 1974, Potter developed a groundbreaking solution to fix another energy problem. "The one issue that isn't easily solved is the availability of geothermal resources on a nationwide scale, which is why I came up with the concept of Hot Dry Rock, which is available anywhere in the country."
The Hot Dry Rock concept - or Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) - involves injecting water into hot, crystalline rock deep beneath the Earth and returning it to the surface where heat can be extracted to create power.
Potter's passion for geothermal exploration continued well after retirement from LANL. In 1984, he teamed with MIT professor Jefferson Tester to patent hydrothermal spallation. He co-founded Potter Drilling with his son, Jared, in 2004 with the goal of developing and commercializing this technique.
Potter is the "creative genius" of the clean energy firm and inspires team members to think of new solutions to problems. "My career has been based on my insatiable scientific curiosity. At Los Alamos, I found that I was good at coming up with innovative ideas. After several were implemented and successful, I became hooked," Potter says. "I have applied this same curiosity and skill for innovation at Potter Drilling."
Investing in geothermal
As Potter's ideas for geothermal technology grow, so does the company. In 2008, Potter Drilling received $4 million from Google.org towards the nonprofit's goal of generating renewable energy cheaper than coal.
The funding helped kick start Potter Drilling's projects and enabled the company to expand from a handful of workers to 16. "Financially, we wouldn't be here without them," Hankowski says.
The company won a $5 million American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grant earlier this year through the Department of Energy's Geothermal Technologies Program to help pay for the hydrothermal spallation project currently underway in Raymond.
The goal of the project - and all of Potter Drilling's work - is to "improve [geothermal] resources and lower costs," Hankowski explains. "This is something we are passionate about."
Potter says his company will continue to find new approaches to clean energy, just as he has done throughout his prolific career. "The technologies - such as hydrothermal spallation being developed at Potter Drilling - are enabling technologies that will allow EGS to move closer to commercialization," he says.
"I believe that EGS has the potential to greatly impact America's energy future."