Drilling into molten magma to create a new energy source

Drilling into molten magma to create a new energy source

Experts in Iceland hope to establish a new energy source by drilling into the molten magma which flows through volcanoes. The new project may generate up to 50 megawatts of electricity if successful and could pose a major breakthrough in sustainable energy development.

The project encompasses drilling a 5 km (3.1 miles) deep hole in the southwest of Iceland in the spot likely to become the world's hottest hole, with temperatures ranging between 400 and 1 000 °C (752 and 1 832 °F). The conditions are such that they hold the capability of generating a supercritical stream which may generate up to 50 megawatts of electricity, which is 10 times more than in the traditional geothermal wells.

Geothermal energy has so far been used to power turbines and produce electricity, especially in Iceland, where more than a quarter of the country is powered by its well-known geothermal wells.

However, the efficiency of such energy sources is limited, and the idea for the new project was born in 2009 when the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) drilled into a 2 km (1.25 miles) deep magma reservoir, while constructing a geothermal well. The experts have poured water down the hole, and discovered it created a most powerful geothermal power source with about 30 megawatts being produced in the process. The team hopes a new attempt will bring even better results and be more sustainable.

The new hole was drilled on August 12, 2016, in the Reykjanes region of the island. The experts have high hopes in reaching the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the magma heats the seawater to temperatures of up to 1 000 °C (1 832 °F).

The water in such an environment would be under a pressure about 200 times greater than the atmospheric and this could create a supercritical steam, which is a state of neither gas nor liquid, and holds abundant amounts of heat energy, up to 50 megawatts, which is ten times larger in capacity than a typical geothermal well. It could power 50 000 homes.

"People have drilled into hard rock at this depth, but never before into a fluid system like this," said Albert Albertsson, assistant director of the HS Orka geothermal-energy company.

"If they can get supercritical steam in deep boreholes, that will make an order of magnitude difference to the amount of geothermal energy the wells can produce,"  said Arnar Guðmundsson from Invest in Iceland, a government agency promoting energy development.

The experiment should be carried out by the end of the year to find out exactly what will happen and how much electricity could be generated. If the experiments prove successful, other regions abundant in young volcanoes. such as Japan or California, could be in for a major advancement, as well.

Featured image: Geothermal power, November 23, 2009. Image credit: Lydur Skulason (Flickr-CC)

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