Volcano-Powered Electricity: Scientists In Iceland Accidentally Drill Into Magma, Revealing Potential To Generate Power

By Josh Lieberman on January 30, 2014 3:31 PM EST

lava
Researchers in Iceland have harnessed the power of magma to generate electricity. Above, lava erupts from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland, in 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

The Icelandic Deep Drilling Project was drilling miles-deep geothermal shafts into the earth in 2009 when they hit something very unexpected: magma. The IDDP had only drilled about 7,000 feet deep in Krafla, Northeast Iceland, when they struck the molten rock, which pushed up against the earth's upper crust at temperatures ranging from 1,652 to 1832 degrees Fahrenheit. In a series of reports published in the January issue of Geothermics, scientists detail how the discovery was made and how energy from magma can be harnessed. 

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"Drilling into magma is a very rare occurrence anywhere in the world and this is only the second known instance," said Wilfred Elders, professor emeritus of geology at the University of California, Riverside and coauthor or three of the Geothermics papers. (The first magma drilling took place in Hawaii in 2007.) "The IDDP, in cooperation with Iceland's National Power Company, the operator of the Krafla geothermal power plant, decided to investigate the hole further and bear part of the substantial costs involved."

IDDP and their partners built a steel casing into the borehole with a section at the bottom which allowed the magma's heat to rise up. The heat built up in the hole, and for two years a stream of superheated steam came up through it. At temperatures of over 840 degrees Fahrenheit, the superheated steam set a world record.  

The steam wasn't capable of producing very much electrical power, though. The power plant at Krafla has an output of 60 megawatts, but the supersteam produced an output of just 36 MW. By way of comparison, coal power plants produce 660 MW. But there is potential for greater things to come from magma power, and it's incredible that anyone managed to harness it at all. 

As is the case with a number of volcanic regions, Iceland is not active all the time, but can become active when shifting many miles below the crust fills up pockets up with magma. 

"They can become very dynamic, raised in pressure, and even force magma to the surface," said geophysics professor Gillian Foulger of Durham University, in the United Kingdom, who wasn't involved in the recent research. "But if it's not activated, then there's no reason to expect a violent eruption, even if you drill into it." However, Foulger cautioned, "with only one experimental account to go on, it wouldn't be a good idea to drill like this in a volcanic region anywhere near a city."

Iceland gets 25 percent of its electricity from geothermal power. As of 2011, 84 percent of the country's energy comes from renewable resources.

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