Transcript of EP 224 – Samo Burja on Geothermal Energy

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Samo Burja. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Samo Burja. That’s spelled B-U-R-J-A by the way, for those who want to look him up, it’s not spelled at least in English the way it sounds. Samo is the founder of Bismarck analysis, a consulting and publishing firm that investigates the political and institutional landscape of society. He’s also a Research Fellow Long Now Foundation, where he studies how institutions can endure for centuries and millennia. He’s also a senior research fellow in political science at the Foresight Institute, where he advises on how institutions can shape the future of technology. Welcome, Samo.

Samo: Good to be here, Jim.

Jim: Yeah, it’s good to have you back. Samos returning guest. He’s been on several times. Perhaps my favorite episodes are EP 117 and EP 125 where we talk about Samo’s very deep ideas about societal decline. Check them out. I’d also want to mention that I subscribe to Bismarck analysis Substack, which I think you said you call Bismarck briefs. It’s the most expensive damn substack I subscribe to, but it is well worth the money, and so if you find yourself impressed by Samo’s insights, don’t be a piker. Give the lad a few bucks so he doesn’t starve and subscribe to the Bismarck briefs on Substack.

Anyway, today we’re going to talk about an area that’s of long-term interest of mine. I saw a recent Substack brief on it, which triggered me to reach out to Samo and say, “Hey, you want to talk about geothermal energy?” And he said, “Sure.” So yeah, the topic is Geothermal Energy and the actual name of the article is Geothermal energy turns planets into power sources. That’s pretty cool. Why don’t we start from the very beginning? What is geothermal energy and how does a planet turn into a power source?

Samo: In the most basic sense, the planet is much warmer the deeper you go, nobody really knows what’s beneath the earth’s surface, except that it’s not geologically or thermally uniform. But generally speaking, the deeper the well, the hotter the temperature, on average for every kilometer you dig, downward temperature increases by 30 degrees Celsius. But this increase varies around the world. There are several reasons that most planets are much, much hotter on the inside than on the outside. Some of this is leftover heat from the formation of the solar system. Some of it is when you have lots and lots of rocks smashing together, they heat up, right? And a lot of that energy still remains inside the earth, hasn’t radiated out. Another source of energy is basically the decay of radioactive elements, the minuscule amount of heat that happens to be produced there, the energy that’s produced there just gets sort of trapped in the planet.

An interesting example in our own solar system is that Jupiter radiates out about 30% more energy than it takes in from the sun. So in some interesting sense, Jupiter of course, is such a massive world that it almost is a failed star rather than a planet. But here on earth, this heat is why the earth is geologically active. It’s not dead inside. Say the moon is much smaller, is mostly dead inside. But say if someone were to go to Mars or any other planet and they dug deep enough, well eventually it would get pretty hot. And currently the main kind of geothermal energy that we make use of is called hydrothermal, which basically means that there’s water reservoirs deep under the Earth’s surface. The water gets very much heated up. The water makes its way to the surface where it turns into steam because there’s much lower pressure on the surface, the deep underground.

Jim: Alrighty. I actually remembered that the heat was a mixture of the residual heat and the radioactive heat, but I couldn’t remember the ratio. So I went and started doing some research and I found out that nobody actually knows, though I did find a number of ranges and interesting, it looks like to a thin factor of two or three, they’re probably quite similar in contribution, that the estimates overlapped considerably, which I said, okay, for lack of anything else, I’m going to say it’s half radioactive and half residual and or gravitational heat. And I do recall from a long time ago that surprisingly the radioactive part, you’d think uranium, thorium, stuff like that. Actually the vast preponderance from potassium-40, which is a radioactive form of potassium that nowhere near as radioactive doesn’t break down as fast as uranium or thorium, but there’s a shitload more of it. So it’s the biggest contributor overall to the heat. And the amount of heat is gigantic, right? Compared to the energy us little humans use on the surface of the earth.

Samo: Right. Right. These are truly vast amounts of energy where we could power entire civilizations with this. The total heat in the earth, including the core and mantle, is something like 10 billion zeta joules or nearly 16 million times the total amount of fossil fuel energy. And now depending on what the truth is of where this heat is coming from, we could think of the earth as a giant reservoir of fossil heat leftover from the creation of the solar system basically. Or we could think of it as a naturally occurring nuclear battery or even nuclear reactor.

Jim: Unlike our fossil fuels, which maybe they’ll last a thousand years if we’re lucky and burn every bit of coal peat and everything else, the rate of decline of the earth’s heat, we’re talking billion years easy, where we’ll still have a significant amount of heat. But to your second point, so far we’ve only been mining a very small part of that, which is the native hot water springs. Countries like Iceland famously get much of their power and even more of their domestic house heat from hot water. And we have some plants, have had plants in the United States, and there’s other plants all around the world, but that’s a relatively sparse resource, right?

Samo: Yes. There are only a few geological locations around the world where this is something worth exploiting. Of course, in Iceland, it’s a small country with only a few hundred thousand people, but still, 90% of the country’s heating comes from geothermal sources. So it’s not just electricity, it’s warming homes, warming hot springs, et cetera, et cetera. If we wanted to, I’m sure we could make excellent use of Yellowstone, as sacrilegious as that might seem. But there are alternatives. There is a ironic technological dependency between fracking and geothermal. It is possible to basically use some of the same techniques of injecting liquids deep under the earth’s surface to artificially inject water there. There’s a significant loss of water with this. However, a bunch of it comes back up as steam that can be harnessed. So potentially you could drill a hole somewhere, pump a lot of water down there, and then harvest the steam for energy. There are other methods as well where you dig basically a pipe and you have a closed system, and this would not have some of the disadvantages that fracking technology has.

Jim: While the wet springs, the yellowstones and the geysers in California and Iceland and such are a relatively rare resource. Every place on earth if you had free drilling, would give you almost unlimited energy at the… They call it the deep dry, hot rock level. But that gradient while average of 30 °C/km actually varies considerably. But the areas where our current relatively straightforward engineering can get us is about 10 kilometers, nine or 10 kilometers. Is that about right?

Samo: Yes.

Jim: But if you look at areas where you can get to 400°C, which allows your very high quality steam, a fair bit of the Western United States, fair bit of Central Europe, even into France, I believe, some significant though not giant parts of Australia, China, Japan, there’s a lot of available resource for deep hot rock in the under 10 kilometer range.

Samo: And a great advantage of this form of energy compared to some of the other sources of energy that have become much more economical in recent decades, renewable sources such as solar and wind, is that it’s not intermittent. No matter whether the sun shines or doesn’t shine, no matter whether the wind blows or doesn’t, the earth stays nice and warm, so it could provide baseload power.

Jim: Yeah, and that’s huge. When you do the economics, you see a lot of dodgy talk about the value of solar and wind. The actual math of electricity is very, very interesting. I actually spent six months studying this in 2004, and it depends on location and time of day and the demand, right? And it’s fluctuating dynamically all the time. And in parts of the country, there are real time markets where people make commitments a minute in advance, an hour in advance, 10 hours in advance, and the prices are dancing around constantly and people are deciding how much to crank up their generators.

And if you have a hydro dam, maybe you send your water out only during those peak times when the price is really high. But bottom line is baseload power is economically way more valuable per unit of capacity than intermittent power. Even if you take the fraction of intermittency like that, a wind turbine in a good location might put out a third on average of its rated power that’s in a very good location, but the electricity it puts out is not worth one third of its rated capacity as compared to the same baseload because the baseload guys can make different kinds of commitments, and it’s just way more valuable source of energy.

So for the audience, you could think of deep hot rock solar is quite similar to a nuclear power plant, only they don’t got no stinking nuclear waste. And as you mentioned, it can be water issues, but there’s some other cool technologies we’ll talk about where you don’t necessarily even need water. But there is one downside, one known downside, especially where you’re using fracking type techniques, which is…

Samo: Well, there’s some earthquakes and tremors.

Jim: Correct.

Samo: That can result from that. Yes.

Jim: Why don’t you talk about that a little bit?

Samo: Well, with regard to fracking technology, when used to extract fossil fuels, it also has other downsides, right? Such as potentially you could have contamination of groundwater, et cetera, et cetera. But there has been some evidence that if you inject high pressure fluids into the earth’s mantle, this can cause basically seismic activity. Now, none of these earthquakes that have been attributed have been significant or disastrous earthquakes. However, if you imagine a mass deployment of geothermal along fault lines, it starts to become a less comfortable prospect. If say California were to rely strongly on geothermal. Now all of this is still disputed, and the basic reason it’s disputed is because we know so little of geology. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve only dug beneath the Earth’s surface very sparingly, and our sensors only have very limited penetration. I think we use, it’s basically underground radar, if I remember correctly, can be used to study the composition of the earth underground, our own science of how the planet works and how the mantle works.

I think there’s been a paradigm shift every 10 or 20 years. People might not realize, but even continental drift as a theory, the reason Africa and South America look like they kind of fit together, the continents and the tectonic plates shifting around, that’s a theory from the 1950s. So our understanding and our science of this planet, very young and our understanding of seismic activity also very immature. And as a result of that, there is a real potential risk using this technology at a massive scale, especially near population centers. But unlike some other technologies where we know for sure what happens if we burn fossil fuels, the planet warms up or we know for sure what happens in a nuclear meltdown. It’s like, okay, a large area of land’s contaminated. There isn’t yet like a definite strong link to a disastrous earthquake of any kind.

Jim: And it’s also true that the earthquake data we do have are from relatively shallow fracking wells. And then here’s another important thing which I didn’t actually see in your report, but I happen to just remember it from other research I did 20 years ago, which is oil and gas is almost exclusively done in relatively soft sedimentary rock, which has a couple of different attributes. One, the rock is softer, so maybe it moves around more, but secondly, this is going to impact I think where we get deeper into the economics of hot rock, geothermal. It’s a lot harder to drill through.

People say, “Well, why don’t we just use our oil and gas technology?” Well, that stuff is optimized and highly optimized. I mean, the oil industry is the biggest industry in the world, right? And so those drill rigs are super optimized, but they’re super optimized to drill through sandstone and as it turns out where the hot rocks are closer to the surface on the earth, that’s generally because there were subterranean mantle flows and the area you’re going to have basalt, feldspar and granite, which are all really, really hard. And so you can’t just scale up the oil and gas technology.

Samo: If anyone’s seen a volcanic rock around a volcano, that should give you a pretty good intuition of the harshness and the hardness of the rock.

Jim: And so it also begs the question on will that also be earthquake prone? We don’t yet really know.

Samo: Drilling technology in general has to be pushed to its limits to get to some of these higher temperatures. For example, the Kola Superdeep Borehole, it was the deepest vertical hole ever dug, and it reached only about 12 kilometers after drilling in the Soviet arctic between 1970 and 1992. The hole was like only nine inches in diameter, and the drill used was provided by the Russian heavy manufacturer, Uralmash, and was specially designed. Still, it had to be stopped because the machinery couldn’t withstand the heat of 180 degrees Celsius, which was higher than what they expected given the local temperature gradient underground.

Jim: Because of reasons of thermodynamics, the hotter the rock, the more valuable it is by a fair bit because it’s always worth remembering. This actually applies to global warning too. The energy from a heat source is the fourth power of the temperature. So when you double the temperature, that is measured from zero Kelvin, so it’s not quite what it seems, but you double the temperature from Kelvin and you 8 X the energy, 16 X energy. So it’s getting that extra temperature by going down deeper is of gigantic economic value, if you can do it and all your equipment doesn’t get fucked up in the process.

Samo: Exactly.

Jim: That then is actually one of the main economic boundary conditions on whether this thing will actually play a role in our energy fleet going forward. Certainly the quantity is there, there’s no question about that. Is it doable? Hell, goddamn [inaudible 00:15:33] incompetent motherfuckers that they are drilled down 12 kilometers 50 years ago. So yeah, we could drill down 10 kilometers or thereabouts. So it’s essentially an engineering problem, not a scientific problem first, and then though it becomes an economic problem, can you solve the engineering problems to the degree that it’s cost competitive with other alternatives? And the largest part of that I believe is still the drilling cost. Is that correct?

Samo: Yes. The drilling cost is the largest cost there, and also drilling is basically it’s if you wanted to invest in a technology, the D bottlenecks are civilization in important ways. I think better drilling technology would be pretty high on the list. It’s not just geothermal, it’s mining. It’s all sorts of infrastructure projects. It’s one of these things that for the last 10,000 years of civilization, so much has been downstream of what kind of metals we can dig up from the earth and how efficiently we can do that. When the metals run out, sometimes the societies ended up falling apart.

Jim: That’s interesting. I mean, he’s not doing vertical drilling, but our old Elon Musk, a clever dude has his boring company, which is looking to optimize horizontal drilling to, in theory make these vacuum sealed rocket pellets that go through from California to San Francisco in 30 minutes kind of deal. But it’s more prosaic uses than that to make subways and stuff like that. Yeah, so drilling is a fundamental technology. So let’s talk a little bit about some of the approaches to drilling that might be amenable to one, hard rock, so not sandstone where they usually are drilling for oil and gas, but granite and basalt and nasty stuff like that and can handle temperatures up to 400 degrees Celsius. What are some of the things that are coming on the scene these days?

Samo: Well, first off, there are some interesting projects that are much more recent than the Soviet project than we discussed. In January 2017, the Icelandic Deep Drilling Project, IDDP dug only 4.7 kilometers down and they measured a fluid temperature of 427 degrees Celsius at over 340 bars of pressure. So what does that mean? That means that that test project basically reached a temperature where the efficiencies would be beautiful basically for extracting energy. So even in places where the rock is harder and the rock is hotter, there are places where we can drill that deeply. Now with regard to current drilling technology, we can already apply it close to sort of fault lines like Iceland. Iceland is a volcanic island. We don’t think of it as perhaps similar to Hawaii, but everyone who has traveled to Iceland has heard that air traffic might be disrupted by volcano eruption.

So in those parts of the world where the tectonic plates meet, some of the current drilling technology might be good enough. Now, the economics, that’s a separate matter. There are reasons to think though that those are sort of the areas where a lot of economic activity happens anyway. Like say Turkey is near the fault lines, Japan is near the fault nines, California is near the fault nines, all sorts of places that consume lots and lots of energy are viable candidates. Basically the IDDP’s 2018 report notes however that the deep holes of dug reflect an environment where available casing material and cementing technology are at or exceeding their limits. So basically you can drill, you can’t necessarily properly modify the space you drill to have it be long-term useful, so it doesn’t just sort of collapse or implode or whatever. The key developments here, I think are in these teams in Iceland actually, and I’m not going to be able to pronounce [inaudible 00:19:38], let’s say that’s his name, the scientist.

He worked and acted as the project manager for the IDDP since its founding, and he has been heading some projects to develop technology that better withstands and deals with these problems. Other drilling technologies, there’s the German company, Eavor. They’ve begun basically drilling a closed loop system in Bavaria where they’re trying to again use state-of-the-art drilling technology to get basically water in down a pipe, heats up water comes back up and provides us with energy as well. Any fluid in a pipe heated externally by the well. However, it relies on conduction and it’s far less efficient than the convection based open loop systems. So this is at a loss of efficiency, that type of approach.

Jim: And of course there is a lot of research in different fluids. One that I find quite interesting is supercritical CO2 where you can actually put CO2 under huge amounts of pressure. Of course, then you have problems with leaks and things of that sort, and you send it down and it absorbs heat really well. It actually absorbs heat as well or better than water, and you can do it in to closed loop system, so you don’t have the wastewater problem all over the place, but you have the problem of operating at high pressure.

So there are no free lunches, and if you’re operating at high pressure with something that wants to escape like CO2, the tolerance is necessary and your casings go way up. So get rid of one cost, you get another. I found some of the more interesting things going on in the actual drill head area. One method is essentially trying to just improve the diamond cutters we use in oil and gas. That seems to be, maybe, but there’s other ones that you referenced in your report, the gyrotron, the idea of using electron beams to cut the rock. What can you tell us about that?

Samo: Well, they meet these kind of millimeter waves of electrons to vaporize rock and inject purging gases to bring the resultant ash back to the surface. This is like honestly sounds like a wonderful sci-fi technology and would certainly solve a lot of the problems. The heat is basically expected to melt a rock around the hole, which then solidifies and acts as a stabilizer, so it overcomes those problems noted in the Icelandic drilling studies. Gyrotrons have been in development for decades. Even the Soviet Union developed their own models. They’re exceedingly rare and they’re usually designed for particular research purposes, so only a few industrial companies manufacture them. This however means that they are a rare and expensive piece of equipment rather than just science fiction. They’re not just a postulated technology. They are a technology we have used before. Now the use for drilling of gyrotrons was developed in 2012 by a [inaudible 00:22:38], a researcher at the MIT Plasma Science Infusion Center.

They demonstrate that such a system could vaporize rocks quickly enough providing the blueprint for a company called [inaudible 00:22:52]. [inaudible 00:22:53] is sort of this technology startup that is pursuing the development of this technology. There are also some interesting projects at the Advanced Research Project Agency, ARPA-E. So this is the Department of Energy’s ARPA. They basically are attempting to build a plasma torch that heats ionized gas to 6,000 degrees Celsius, and that’s also enough to disintegrate rock. So that is a different technology from the gyrotron because plasma, you could consider it almost the fourth state of matter, right? There’s a solid, liquids, gases, and then there’s plasma as well. So extremely high heated gas would be one way to think of it.

Jim: Yeah, the company called GA Drilling in Slovakia, actually that is the leader, or at least it’s the one that has gotten the most funding for attempting to build plasma pulse drill heads for this purpose. And as you talked about the gyrotron, the other big advantage is probably itself seals the casing as it goes because melting the rock rather than breaking it up. And so-

Samo: That is an advantage.

Jim: That’s a huge advantage, right? A big part of the cost, and the cost goes up in a non-linear fashion with respect to the depth for various reasons. If they actually can eliminate or reduce the casing, that changes the economic quite a lot. And then the other one I stumbled across, it wasn’t in your report, but again, I was just, as I always do, just googling around a bit, see what I could educate myself on before the call. I discovered there were another one where people are using diamond particles essentially shot out at high velocity.

Samo: Oh, interesting.

Jim: Yeah, and with big suction to pull them back up so you don’t lose your little diamonds. And it sounds like it’s not as far along as the gyrotron or-

Samo: That sounds like sand blasting except your diamond blasting thing-

Jim: Yeah. Exactly, right? Pretty much that’s what it sounded like. And also at really high speed, not just wind speed. I don’t remember how they got them going fast, but yeah, certainly an area of very interesting research. And again, the figure of merit is what does it cost per kilometer to drill these suckers at a size and a stability that’s sufficient for one or more of the ways of retrieving the energy. And then just like fracking, you have the next problem, which is a straight hole down, doesn’t do you too much good, right? You have to then go horizontal or set off an explosion or something some way to increase the surface area that you have access to so you can get more energy. The act of the surface area of a little nine-inch hole ain’t going to do it for you.

Samo: In a way, however, a good way to think about this is that this is perhaps infrastructure for the very long future. Once you dig that hole, you can keep on using it for a very, very long time until it gets blocked for some reason, so decades or even centuries.

Jim: Yeah. That is true though it will deplete locally, but I actually never did find any math on that. What rate can you take energy out without depleting the local temperature gradient?

Samo: Oh, I think you can take it at a quite high rate actually. Again, these are such vast quantities of heated stone and so on. The closed flow systems are a bit faster in cooling the immediate vicinity of the well, but if you’re just pushing water into the surrounding rock, there’s plenty of heat. So it would take, honestly… If I remember right, I was talking to someone and they cited me a number of one to 200 years per well, right? Which then sort of… Of course it heats up as soon as you stop pumping back water. So it’s not really exhausted forever, the heat goes back into that area. So you could even do something like you use a well for 200 years and then you wait a hundred years and then you check if that area is good enough again to go and then you go again.

Jim: It’s like the two field agriculture system that they used in medieval Europe, right, where you’d farm one strip and then not the other, and then you’d switch two or three years later and yeah, it’s not a hundred-year cycle. That’s interesting. So at the scale of millennia that it is a perpetual energy source though may be only at half the rate that one well would do, but that’s fine. When you think about things at the millennia scale, we’ve got plenty of time to build out our infrastructure for the coming millennia. That’s a cool thing.

Now, early in your paper actually, but I thought I’d bring it out later after we talked about what all this stuff was, you made the interesting comment, but the vast amounts of energy that could be unlocked with geothermal breakthroughs are not needed by today’s relatively stagnant civilization any more than the vast energy of a hypothetical nuclear renaissance or fusion revolution. So what did you mean by that? Everybody’s crying about we don’t got enough energy, [inaudible 00:27:29] is too high. What do you mean when you say that we are in a relatively stagnant civilization, maybe we don’t need all this clean perpetual energy?

Samo: Well, I said earlier that the heat in the earth, including the corn mantle is estimated to be 10 billion zeta joules. That is 60 million times the total amount of fossil fuel energy. However, solar energy is also extremely abundant, but there’s only 2,700 zeta joules that reaches the earth’s surface, yet that is still 5,000 times more than global energy consumption. The case is that certain sources of energy to be economical, have to be used at scale. There’s no point building a single nuclear reactor. A single nuclear reactor is either kind of like an art project or it’s a nuclear weapons project, a thousand nuclear reactors. Well, that has economies of scale, but then you would run into all of the problems of a thousand nuclear reactors, including maybe every country in the world has nuclear weapons as a result. This is something that advocates of nuclear energy, don’t like pointing out, but it’s basically true that whenever you give a country a nuclear reactor, if they really, really want to, this can be of some help to developing such a weapon.

Still, the unity economics are ruthless. If I only built a single sports car, well, that would be a pretty expensive sports car. In fact, that’s the reason supercars are so expensive because we only produce a few hundred of them. Any car that you can make in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions is much cheaper. Solar cells could be manufactured to cover vast areas of the earth’s surface, and that could have beautiful unity economics as well, less extreme than a complicated machine like a nuclear reactor, but still beautiful unity economics. In a strange way, fossil fuels would become a very expensive source of energy if we used a thousand or hundred times more energy than we do.

It would be a strange and weird bespoke thing to burn this rare black liquid to get energy out of it. The demand would far outstrip the possible supply of fossil fuels, but would justify the expenses of vastly scaled infrastructure. So in an interesting way, I think we’re kind of trapped in this… I wouldn’t call it a local. Maybe a local optima, let’s say, where the cheapest source of energy for us is fossil fuels. But if we were vastly more hungry like a cardish of one civilization or something like that, fossil fuels would be a ludicrously inefficient, inexpensive source of energy.

Jim: And of course, we have a potential energy suck coming online, which I suppose we all had our own artificial general intelligence agent that was grafted into our brain with a neural link type high-speed connector. In fact, the previous episode of the Jim Rutt Show, we talk about just that, the amount of energy necessary to pet a flops, at least anything like today’s technology, well, we could probably consume a thousand times the current energy flocks. So there is a potential demand where if we each had a true a GI sitting on our shoulder, the only way you could get there with today’s technology, maybe some quantum computing breakthroughs would be probably increasing our energy flux by a factor of a thousand, which there’s not enough fossil fuel do that anyway.

All the fossil fuel on the ground probably only lasts a thousand years. So we’d burn it all up in a year, and of course we’d cook ourselves, which is not a good thing to do, but we could conceivably get a thousand times the current energy flux of the human race from solar or deep hot rock, geothermal or possibly fusion, which again, fusion’s always 40 years away and it always has been. Maybe it always will be. We shall see. But unlike fusion, geothermal can be done. The real question is what will it cost?

Samo: Right. And the costs. I think it is the case that geothermal has been radically under-invested in. So part of it is just a discovery process. We can’t necessarily predict which technologies will work out or not. As you mentioned, fusion has been 40 years away for what now? 80 years and maybe we’ll be for 80 more, and there have been billion dollar experiments, right? The international reactor in France ITER, right? That’s this sort of international nuclear experiment I think that spent billions of dollars on it. So fusion has been researched very deeply. And there’s also of course, again, nuclear’s weapons motivation. When you hear about the breakthroughs at the National Ignition Center on nuclear energy, what you should understand is that they are igniting very tiny pellets of basically hydrogen.

Where else are very tiny pellets of hydrogen ignited to fuse well inside a hydrogen bomb, right? We have a fission starter and inside you have the small amount of hydrogen that then ignites. So there’s been kind of a defense industry subsidy to a certain extent, looking into nuclear energy, looking into fusion because it does have some immediate military benefits. Geothermal offers no such military benefits, but I think basically deserves the same level of investment. It’s a much simpler technology, as expensive as drilling might be, surely it’s cheaper than deploying basically superconducting magnets to contain extremely hot plasma, right? And then trying to get some sort of energy surplus energy profit out of that process. I think that’s extremely difficult.

Jim: And oh, by the way, there’s one other deep problem with fusion that the fusion fanatics hate to talk about, which is though we don’t have the split particle waste of fission plants, there is an unbelievable flux of neutrons that come out of any realistic fusion technology that we currently hot fusion, maybe cold desktop fusion will have any kind of hot fusion, gigantic neutron flux, and it radiates the hell out of all the metal. Now, I will say that it’s a short-term radiation and it’ll cool down in a hundred years. So it’s not like the long-term waste, but the more important part is it fatigues the metal, right? The metal has to be replaced. You have to tear the whole thing down, build it back up every 10 or 15 years at the most. That’s one that the boys don’t like talking about too much.

When I got a fusion fanatic on, I’d say, “All right, what’s your solution?” If you ever want to fuck with them, just say, “What’s your solution to the neutron flux problem on the structural members?” And they go, “[inaudible 00:34:14].” Yeah, well, we got other problems first. They go, “Well, you got to solve them all before you have a useful plant.” In terms of the research dollars out of your report, you said… This kind of shocked me that in the recent infrastructure bill, which there was a large amount for alternative energy, 9.5 billion went for carbon-neutral hydrogen production, and that’s a well understood domain and that’s pure economics. Whether it makes sense or not, there’s a very small area of research necessary on better hydrolysis systems and catalytics and stuff, 9.5 billion, and only 84 million, less than 1% as much for advanced geothermal. That seems crazy.

Samo: Well, but this is in line with bureaucratic incentives, right? When it comes to large organizations, the more money they handle, the more in order to appear responsible, they have to put money into stuff that’s already proven that no one can say that, “Oh, you’re funding something that’s crackpot or crazy. But you know what? That’s extremely inefficient.” So there is a strange dynamic that always happens with government funded research where the least interesting research has the most money behind it. The most interesting research, the least proven research is also the most bureaucratically hazardous. Imagine you are the person that championed $20 million for a technology that is a complete dud, right? And on the other hand, imagine you’re the person that champions $2 billion for a technology everyone knows that works, and then you have some immeasurable minor improvements. Does anyone even notice that you wasted $2 billion? I don’t think anyone even notices that. I think that’s how these government science stuff works, unfortunately.

Jim: Unfortunately, you’re absolutely right. And compared to contrast that with the way our high-tech investments work, every real VC, even though I like to shit out of them somewhat, and some of them deserve it, but there are a lot of VCs that are good and the best VCs, they’re happy to be right 10% of the time, right? Because they know that they’ll get a giant asymmetric return, not just an incremental return. If they want an incremental return, they’ll go buy the S&P 500, just sit on their ass all day, right?

Samo: And you know $80 million, right? That’s more than one VC would ever do, but two million, 20 million, they could do it. And that’s suddenly is like government tier money for this stuff, you know?

Jim: That’s crazy, right? There are definitely bad startup ideas that have sucked up $84 million.

Samo: That’s true.

Jim: Not in a single round. Well, later rounds maybe, but not from one firm. But yeah, just a medium-sized consortium of VC firms have easily been fleeced for $84 million.

Samo: Exactly.

Jim: Many times, right? And the reason is because it’s asymmetric.

Samo: Yes.

Jim: Nine out of 10 of them, you bury them or you get 10 cents and a dollar back, but one of them is Google, the other one’s Facebook. Oh, Nvidia, what the hell, right? I threw a million bucks in Nvidia. It’s now worth 10 billion. Holy shit, right? Unfortunately, our science and technology investing because of the bureaucratic structure is not incented to operate that way, which is a damn shame. And it’s a major sub-optimization of how we deploy our social surplus that which we don’t eat every year is our social surplus, which gets invested in stuff.

The better you invest your social surplus, the faster your society moves ahead. Of course, that was the downfall of Marxist Leninism. It did not know how to intelligently allocate its social surplus, at the end of the day, oh, yeah, they were ugly motherfuckers and they had the gulag and all that horse shit, but the real problem was their incentive structure did not produce the right way to… And they had much bigger social surplus than we did, gunpoint savings basically. So the savings rate in the Soviet Union was way higher than it ever was in the United States, but they just deployed it miserably badly. And unfortunately, the government science funding infrastructure looks a lot more like the Soviet Union than it does like Silicon Valley.

Samo: And it ages very poorly, right? Over time, you have essentially corporate welfare that emerges, or I hesitate to call it scientific welfare. I’m always a fan of funding more science, but the truth is people want to keep on funding the same thing that was funded last year and the year before. They want to have the same lab with the same approach, with the same people, and that’s not the best way to do breakthroughs. The best way is new approaches and new people.

Jim: Well, I went to a Metascience Conference in May of 2023. It’s a new area. I’m interested in metascience, which is the science of science, and it kind of looks like how could we make our scientific institutions of the world more efficacious? And there was a young researcher there, maybe he was hoping he could get one, but he came out with, I thought was a brilliant proposal, which is the federal government, it would cost about 4 billion a year to endow. This would cover the whole lifetime of these grants using a mechanism obviously of peer review and not the government itself bank decision, but some fair method would give out 1000 lifetime endowed chairs to people who are exactly 25 years old.

Samo: Interesting. I think that would greatly speed up scientific advancement. Why give tenure to the old? You could give it to the young instead.

Jim: Yeah. There are people who decay, they’re brilliant at 25, but they up. But if you see someone who’s brilliant at 25, that’s a damn good bet. And for a mere four or $5 million, you can endow a lifetime tenured position for them where they don’t have to waste their time writing grants. They don’t have to kiss on department heads. They can just go do their research. I’ll still have to write grants to degree, they need really big apparatus and big staffs and stuff, but man, when I heard that I got… Whoa, there’s a brilliant idea on a much better use of $4 billion than, oh, yeah, well, got a third of yet another carrier battle group, which will go down in the first two hours of a sea war, big old. Those are things that be as laughable as the battleships in World War II, when the ballistics really start to fly, the kinetics really happen. Those carrier battle groups, boom down, they go pretty quickly.

Samo: And even if it’s not the rockets, drone submarines,.

Jim: Exactly.

Samo: Can you stop a swarm of a thousand drones each basically the same amount of explosives as a mine?

Jim: Hell no.

Samo: I’m not sure you can. You can’t.

Jim: No, you can’t. Not with today’s weapons.

Samo: Of course, right? So the result is that they’re kind of sitting ducks, giant steel sitting ducks like whales waiting to be harpooned.

Jim: Yeah, you and I, we both love the military history and military dynamics and all that sort of stuff. So we’re going to go a little aside here. This is what the hell, why not? It’s my podcast, I’ll talk about whatever the fuck I want to. One of the things I have noticed in the rhythm of military history is that there are times when the strategic offensive has an advantage, and there are times when the strategic defensive has an advantage. And one of the ones I love to point out is in the Napoleonic era, the strategic offense had an advantage and Napoleon knew how to do that, had an instinct attack and could overwhelm with a frontal assault, and if he gets a flank attack, even better. By the time of the US Civil War, a mere 50 years later, the mini ball had been invented and the rifled musket, which instead of having an effective range of 75 yards had an effective range of 225 yards.

And so a frontal attack now had almost no chance to succeed because you were vulnerable for three times as much of the charge as you were previously. And if you look at the American Civil War, which there were some of the more amazing battles in world history happened, almost all the winners, like 90% where the guys were on the tactical defensive and let the other guy break his swords. This was Robert E. Lee and then send Stonewall Jackson after their ass. And of course, Lee’s great debacle was Gettysburg, where he violated that premise and thought that he could take Cemetery Ridge by two days of frontal assault. Guess what, it didn’t work. My take is that we are now deep in a highly defense favoring epoch because of the asymmetry between cheap weapons like anti-tank weapons.

Samo: Drones.

Jim: Drones, a hundred dollars drones with little mortar bombs on them. The Ukrainians have been brilliant in the stuff that they are jerry-rigging, but wait until you actually start producing this stuff at scale. To your point about submersible, loitering, undersea mines, how the hell are the Chinese going to get across the Taiwanese strait? If Taiwan had 20,000 of these suckers, right? Which they could probably build for a hundred grand a pop, and so for less than the profit of TSMC in one year, they could make their island entirely invasion proof with sub-C smart loitering torpedo mines that you just released a few hundred of them if you thought the Chinese were coming, if you knew the Chinese were coming let loose 10% of your fleet, 2000 of them, and the whole Chinese fleet goes probably before it gets within 20 miles of the coast. So I would not bet on the Chinese successfully taking Taiwan if they don’t do it right soon.

Samo: Well, with regard to modern warfare, military history never repeats, but it does rhyme, and I can’t help but notice that in Ukraine, the front lines have stabilized in a way almost reminiscent of World War I precisely because of this favoring advantage, right? There is heavy use of artillery, there are significant infantry casualties and tanks, the agent of mobile warfare, basically, those have been completely taken out by, again, anti-tank weaponry and drones. There’s a surprising synergy actually between artillery and drones, which both the Ukrainians and the Russians use. You basically have a drone fly out and do precision targeting for sending information back to a somewhat automated artillery piece that then shoots a much heavier payload of munitions onto the location tagged by the drone.

Jim: Oh, we’ll have to have a whole podcast on the new tech of what we’ve learned from Ukraine and what the military, the world of the future will look like. But let’s get back at least wrap up here on deep hot rock geothermal. It wasn’t in your report, but I’m curious if on the side or for your consulting clients that you’d be willing to talk about publicly, did you come to any conclusions on tolerable guesses on economics? Because one of the things I did learn, my 2004 deep dive is at the end of the day, marginal economics are everything in energy, right? If one source is identical with respect to its other attributes and it’s 10% more expensive, nobody will take it up at all, right? You have to find a niche that makes economic sense. And again, the advantage of the deep hot rock is with several, it is a base load doesn’t fluctuate.

That’s huge. It’s hugely valuable. It doesn’t use up a lot of space, so you don’t have the environmentalist after you’re asked that you’re shading the habitat of the X, Y, Z tortoise or something, which I know happens in California with solar, potential downside is earthquakes, so maybe you don’t want to do it next to big cities, but a place like the United States and Australia and even China and Russia have large amounts of space away from big cities, so that could work. But then you have the fundamental economics of drilling and casing and dealing with the fluid, whatever fluid you choose to use, the generators, generators turned out to be a fairly small part of the whole thing as I saw the math. Did you come away with a view on whether the math of geothermal is likely to work versus let’s say solar and batteries or solar and hydrogen, something like that?

Samo: Well, to drill a four kilometer well, which is middle range costs about $5 million, and $5 million is honestly not that much money. If you’re comparing it to something like a nuclear reactor, it would take I think two drilling holes to have something comparable in terms of energy supply for a small town or for a small city. But still, to me, it seemed at the end of the day, where geology is most favorable, it is already competitive with nuclear. The question is how competitive is nuclear once you take away the implicit subsidy that exists? Who are the great nuclear powers of the world today that use a lot of nuclear energy? Well, it’s France, it’s the United States, actually, it’s Russia. These are countries with nuclear weapons, and then there’s Japan. Well, that’s a country that stockpiles a few tons of plutonium for research purposes.

Jim: We all know what that’s for.

Samo: Japan has a nuclear arsenal in reserve, some assembly required, right?

Jim: Yeah. Take them four days and they’ll have all the nukes they need. Right?

Samo: Exactly. Which is wise honestly, if China were to succeed in taking Taiwan and the US for some reason decides we’re done with Asia, the Japanese need an alternative. Or even if the US is like, “You know what, Japan, it’s been long enough. You’ve behaved well enough. You are allowed to have nuclear weapons. Let’s scare the Chinese so they don’t try to take any of your islands.” Right? That type of situation. So it’s not immediately clear to me how much lower the energy cost could be. I would be more optimistic on savings in just advanced fission technology. So better nuclear reactors, right? Not even fusion, just fission.

Meanwhile, for geothermal, there’s not many savings unless there’s a fundamental breakthrough in drilling, and that fundamental breakthrough can’t really be forecasted. So for a country like Iceland, great, they should invest in it. Arguably a country like Japan, arguably a state like California, I think it is something that could become valuable also in a place like Germany. If Germany continues to be this sort of country where energy demand is high, but they don’t like any of the other energy sources, nuclear is extremely unpopular in Germany, they might make geothermal a costly solution even without new energy breakthroughs. And to be honest, does anyone really want Germany with nuclear weapons? Maybe they’re wise to be anti-nuclear, right? Even if you trust the Germans of today, do you trust them in 30 years?

Jim: Yeah. They have a bad track record. There’s no doubt about that.

Samo: They make bad decisions every few generations. Yeah.

Jim: Yeah, yeah. In fact, my family background’s quite a mixed American mutt, but the German and the Irish are probably the two biggest components in it according to DNA testing, and therefore have invented the first Irish German joke. What’s an Irish German’s idea of a good time?

Samo: What is it?

Jim: Get drunk and take over the world. Anyway, after insulting most of my ancestors, I want to thank Samo for a very interesting exploration of what could be real important, and again, based on one or two breakthroughs in drilling, but probably could well have niche applications around the world called dry, hot rock geothermal energy, which I’ll bet a lot of people listen to the show had never even heard of, but check it out, it’s important. Bug your Congresscritter. Tell them they ought to be putting more research dollars behind it. Any final thoughts?

Samo: Well, I think that… I hope that in the future we will have abundant and energy friendly and cheap energy. And I’m sure we will end up finding uses for it. Like consider, we could desalinate entire new rivers from the sea, terraforming huge parts of the Earth’s surface to be habitable. We could travel much faster than we ever traveled before. Come on, who doesn’t want to travel in a supersonic plane to the other side of the world or maybe go on a vacation to space? These are all sort of classical 20th century dreams that are only possible if we actually make energy too cheap to meter.

Jim: And energy not giving out greenhouse gases. That’s the other key part of it, right?

Samo: Well, of course. Yeah. It has to be clean, but nuclear always was arguably for greenhouse gases, just has other problems.

Jim: Indeed. Alrighty, Samo, this is great. Good to have you back on the show and I’m sure we’ll see you again.

Samo: Thank you for having me.

Jim: Alrighty.