Iceland taps the ultimate renewable energy source: Earth's magma

Iceland plans a second drilling operation in coming years

Boring thousands of meters into the ground, Icelanders broke through to the magma layer, uncovering a vast ocean of lava that is now being used to produce steam power.

Iceland's National Energy Authority has created the world's first magma-based geothermal energy system after drilling 1.3 miles (2,100 meters) through the Earth's crust.

It is only the second time that a drilling operation has broken through to the mantle, the next layer after the Earth's crust, the group said. It is the world's first magma-based enhanced geothermal system (EGS).

The drilling operation was the work of the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), a consortium of the National Energy Authority of Iceland and the nation's leading energy companies.

The Iceland Deep Drilling Project was able to bore through the Earth's crust to its mantle and then line the hole with steel to create a shaft with superheated steam that could be fed into a nearby power plant. (Photo: IDDP)

The borehole is located in Krafla, in northeast Iceland, near a volcanic crater. The hole created a shaft with high-pressure, super-heated steam that could power a nearby electrical plant, the project leaders said.

"According to the measured output, the available power was sufficient to generate up to 36 megawatts electricity, compared to the installed electrical capacity of 60 megawatts in the Krafla power plant," IDDP stated in a document.

The team was able to bore the deep hole by pumping in cold water to break up the rock next to the magma in a process known as hydrofracking.

Once the IDDP reached molten magma of the Earth's mantle, it lined the bottom of the bore hole with a steel casing, creating a shaft of high-pressure steam that exceeded 842 degrees Fahrenheit (450 Celsius). The project broke a world record for geothermal heat and power.

The team said the steam from the IDDP-1 well, as it's called, could be fed directly into the power plant at Krafla.

Iceland's National Power Company was preparing to connect to the magma-powered steam pipe just before the hole had to be closed due to a valve failure.

IDDP, however, is planning to attempt a reopening of IDDP-1, as well as to drill a second borehole (IDDD-2) in Reykjanes, Iceland, in the coming years.

"In various parts of the world so-called EGS geothermal systems ... are being created by pumping cold water into hot dry rocks at 4 to 5 km depths. Then the heated water is taken up again as hot water or steam from nearby production wells. In recent decades, there has been considerable effort invested in Europe, Australia, USA, and Japan, with uneven results and typically poor results," the IDDP stated.

The Earth's layers

Scientists theorize that the Earth is made up of four layers: a crust, a mantle, a core and an inner core. The sub-ocean crust is three to five miles thick, and the continental crust is 20 to 30 miles thick. That crust only makes up about 1% of the Earth's mass.

The mantle is the next layer below the crust. The mantle is about 1,800 miles thick and makes up about 70% of the planet's mass. Researchers believe the mantle is where most of the Earth's internal heat is located because of its sheer size and because most of it is molten rock.

The Earth's layers (Source: Kelvinsong (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While the IDDP-1 is not the first bore hole to reach the planet's magma, it is the first time the IDDP was able to harness the mantle's heat to produce a steam pipe that could power a plant. In 2007, Puna Geothermal Venture, which was looking for ways to produces geothermal power using Hawaii's volcanoes, drilled 2.5 kilometers into Hawaii's Big Island, and broke through to the mantle.

"The success of this drilling and research is amazing to say the least, and could in the near future lead to a revolution in energy efficiency in high-temperature geothermal areas of the world," the IDDP stated.

While the hole ultimately had to be closed after a few months, the IDDP said by successfully drilling the hole and carrying out experiments, it demonstrated that a high-enthalpy (energy) geothermal system can be created using the Earth's magma.

The IDDP-1 geothermal boring operation as seen from a distance on Iceland's barren landscape. (Photo: IDDP)

"What is the future and do the results have a practical value? Sure, the future is bright and the answer is 'yes'. Although the IDDP-1 hole is unusable at the moment, in [the] future the aim is to drill a similar hole and/or to repair IDDP 1 hole," IDDP stated. "The experiment at Krafla suffered various setbacks and tried personnel and equipment throughout. However, the process itself was very instructive, and... comprehensive reports on practical lessons learned are nearing completion."

This article, Iceland taps the ultimate renewable energy source: Earth's magma, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Iceland taps the ultimate renewable energy source: Earth's magma" was originally published by Computerworld .

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