Vast quantities of oil and natural gas are trapped under rock that’s too hard to drill though economically with existing technology. Joel Moxley’s startup, Foro Energy, wants to use high-powered lasers to carve through rock that stymies conventional drill bits, making these resources cheaper to extract.
Lasers powerful enough to blast through rock are already available, and recent advances have made them more transportable. But they are too big and fragile to be sent down the borehole, and conventional fiber optics can’t transport high-energy laser beams over long distances. That was the problem Moxley aimed to solve when he founded Foro, in 2009. As CEO, he gathered some of the world’s best experts on high-powered lasers, established joint development partnerships with major energy companies, and raised over $20 million in venture capital and government grants. The result: Foro has designed a system that can direct laser beams along more than 3,500 meters of fiber-optic cable while retaining enough power to cut through hard rock two to four times as fast as conventional bits, lowering drilling costs by two-thirds. The technology caught the attention of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, which gave Foro one of the largest awards it has granted. “Laser-based drilling was considered crazy even five years ago,” says David Danielson, a program manager at ARPA-E. Now, Moxley says, commercial drilling could begin in two to three years. —Kevin Bullis