A drilling rig unveiled by researchers at the University of Oklahoma could dramatically change how the world sources its energy. The research team at the University's Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering plans to use the rig to tap into geothermal vents below the Earth's surface for an unlimited energy supply, a local media report said.

With countries worldwide looking for ways to address their energy needs without emitting carbon, wind, solar, and even nuclear power are getting a boost. However, these sources are plagued by their constraints, such as intermittency or radioactive waste.

Geothermal energy, on the other hand, has neither of these issues and is a reliable source of power without any carbon emissions. The hurdle, however, is to tap into the source far below the depths we have dug into before. 

A drilling rig for geothermal vents

Orkhan Khankishiyev, a master's student at the university, conceptualised a rig that is 17ft (5.18m) tall which could be used to reach the depths necessary to tap into geothermal energy.

For comparison, oil and gas exploration technologies currently dig up to a depth of 10,000ft (3,048m), but for tapping into geothermal heat, one needs to dig to twice this depth to about 20,000ft (6,096m). The increased temperatures at this depth, which could range between 600-700 degrees Fahrenheit (315-371 degrees Celsius), further complicate the task. 

The digging will also need to be done in pairs, one for the upcoming vent and another for water. Once dug, one of the vents will be used to send in water, while the heat of the Earth will turn it into steam and send it up the other vent. The steam can then be used to power a turbine and generate electricity. 

Human dug vents will be much smaller in diameter and power thousands of homes. Image: Mlenny/iStock

The researchers predict that a single pair of vents can produce enough energy to power 2,000 homes per day. Since the circumference of the vent is not wider than nine inches (~23 cm), multiple vents can be dug at the same site, which could theoretically even be in an individual's backyard and generate power.

The team has moved from concept to prototype quite quickly but needs to extensively test its performance, which could take a few years. However, the potential of technology in the energy sector is tremendous.

The researchers compare it to fracking, which went from an unknown concept to one that everybody was using in just a decade. Geothermal energy could be the next big thing in the power sector if the drilling rig works out.