Drilling for Profits

Geothermal has become an important source of green energy in recent years and Nevada is said to have enormous geothermal potential reserves. Energy from a geothermal power plant is generated by drilling into structures that bring this heat from the interior of the Earth closer to the surface. The heat in the form or steam or hot water is then brought up the surface to a geothermal power plant where it is used to turn turbines and generate electricity. The costliest and riskiest proposition facing the industry is finding the targets to drill. These almost always occur far from below and laterally away from surface manifestations of heat (like hot springs). So, a sophisticated approach is needed to locate these targets in the subsurface. This is where Optim comes in. Optim has pioneered the use of advanced seismic imaging technology to map subsurface structures in complex environments that are typical of geothermal friendly environments.

satish pullammanappallil optimOptim founders, Satish Pullammanappallil along with Bill Honjas have developed a software that greatly improves on the conventional method. Companies using conventional methods of mapping have about a 20% success rate. Satish and Bill’s software gives driller upwards of an 80% success rate. This video by Bill Honjas and the Reno Gazette Journal explains how their product works in more detail.

Satish Pullammanappallil first began his work on the algorithm for their software as part of his Ph.D thesis at the University of Nevada in 1994. During the same time Bill Honjas, working towards his MS in geophysics, applied the methods to real world data. In particular he used it to image offshore faults running under the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. This application showed the utility of the algorithms in mapping faults without any user bias. After graduation, Satish was hired by Bill Honjas who at the time was working as Geophysical Director for a small consulting firm in the Bay Area doing seismic hazard work and small geothermal projects. In 1997 Bill and Satish formed Optim, a spinout company based on this intellectual property originally conceived while they were at UNR. Along with helping to provide them with matching funds for the spinout, the Applied Research Initiative gave them a small office on the University of Nevada campus. As they continued to build Optim, Bill and Satish licensed a second method involved in earth mapping. This second method allowed them to map shear-wave velocities which can then be used to assess earthquake shaking potential from ambient noise. Shear-wave velocity forms the basis of one of the International Building Code requirements. Optim developed a commercial software based on this technology and were able to license it to the worldwide community of geotechnical engineers. The main utility of this program is the ability for builders and engineers and quickly and cheaply find the “seismic site classification” for any site they are planning to build on without having to resort to expensive drilling which was the norm until now. They then teamed up with the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) to propose and win a project to map shear wave velocities all of urban Clark County Nevada. The project was successfully completed, county wide map produced and now anybody that wants to build in Clark County Nevada simply can go on the Building Department website and look up the lot of land they would like to build on and find out its seismic site class without having to go out and measure it.

Currently Optim is primarily focused on marketing and selling its software to geotechnical and energy industries. They formed a subsidiary called Klamath Basin Geopower that is focussed on leasing, exploring and developing geothermal projects. Their first project is in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

As they have continued to grow, both Bill and Satish have made it a priority to give back to the University of Nevada as well as the community as a whole. Optim sponsors the Reno Rodeo, the Reno Aces, and collaborates on research via grants to the University of Nevada. Optim also funds the “Optim Graduate Fellowship” that provides fellowships every year to UNR graduate students conducting research in the area of geophysics.

In the future, Optim is looking to expand its operations internationally. In 2014 they are looking to open up an office in the Netherlands. Optim is also looking at expand their geothermal operations in Japan, the Caribbean Islands, and parts of South America in the future where renewable energy is needed most.

Image from kbgeopower.com

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