Icelandic scientists want to drill a hole directly into a reservoir of molten magma about a mile underground. It could generate unlimited energy.

Clouds of smoke rise from a shaft created when scientists accidentally drilled into a magma chamber in 2009.KMT

  • Icelandic scientists want to drill directly into an underground magma chamber.

  • The project could offer clues about how volcanoes work, as well as create geothermal energy.

  • The biggest obstacles are getting financing for the project and figuring out how to drill into the magma.

Scientists in Iceland want to drill a hole into a magma chamber about a mile underground in an attempt to generate unlimited energy.

The Krafla Magma Testbed (KMT) aims to create the world’s first magma chamber research center to monitor, sample and test molten rock in situ for the first time.

It is hoped that the center can provide unprecedented insights into how volcanoes work and open new avenues for unlimited geothermal energy.

“The magma inside the Earth is the last unexplored frontier,” Hjalti Páll Ingólfsson of the KMT told Business Insider.

A crater is a spectacle to let off steamA crater is a spectacle to let off steam

Natural geothermal energy is seen at Hverir Namafjall, in the Krafla fissure, Iceland.mika mika

An accidental discovery

Research into magma chambers is crucial. These pools of molten rock, located in the Earth’s crust, can create volcanoes if they find a way to reach the surface.

But they are devilishly difficult to locate with surface equipment and difficult to track before an eruption.

“We don’t have any direct knowledge of what magma chambers are like, which is crucial to understanding volcanoes, of course,” Paolo Papale of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Pisa, who has written about the issue.

In 2009, scientists identified a potential candidate about 4 kilometers underground near Krafla in northern Iceland. Then they started drilling.

But about a mile into his descent, his drill got stuck. Only later, when it re-emerged with shards of volcanic glass, did they realize what had happened. They had accidentally stuck their heads into a magma chamber.

Scientists managed to make some measurements, but eventually, the wellhead became too hot to operate, according to New Scientist.

They decided to pour cold water into the well to cool it, releasing black clouds that destroyed their rigging.

Now, 15 years later, the KMT wants to drill the chamber again, but this time it wants to be able to stay, with the help of some clever engineering tricks.

Reaching magma with a glassy rock ‘sock’

Krafla is a perfect place for this type of experiment. The magma there is old and viscous, meaning it is unlikely to create an eruption or flow out of the well when experimented with, Ingólfsson said.

Because it is so close to a volcano, any small tremors caused by scientists poking around in the chamber are unlikely to have an impact, Jon Gluyas, professor of Earth sciences at Durham University, told BI.

“If you’re in Iceland, you’re already in an extremely active volcanic region. There’s nothing humans can do that will materially alter that one way or another,” Gluyas said.

However, standard drilling rigs cannot survive in these conditions.

“It’s very hot. And that means the materials you’re going to use to drill are not suitable for those kinds of temperatures,” Gluyas said.

A big challenge, Ingólfsson said, will be drilling directly into the magma while protecting the equipment.

The solution is quite simple: freeze the magma. Using water, the team aims to freeze the magma in front of the drill bit. This will create a “sock or pocket” of frozen glassy rock, similar to the obsidian you can find on Earth, according to Ingólfsson.

One image shows obsidian, a glassy rock, buried in the ground.One image shows obsidian, a glassy rock, buried in the ground.

An obsidian flow displayed in the Landmannalaugar region of IcelandLayne Kennedy/Getty Images

Once it is large enough, the drill bit can be removed, creating a small cavity inside the chamber to deposit some monitoring equipment before the glass sleeve collapses, according to Ingólfsson.

This should allow scientists to get an accurate reading of the temperature inside the magma chamber, something that has never been done before, according to New Scientist.

“Will it work? It’s definitely a challenge,” Ingólfsson said.

“We think we have the equipment, we have the solutions, but it’s very difficult to test them or make them accurate unless we do it in a real environment,” he said.

Another problem will be maintaining the rigs, a crucial point since the KMT wants the wells to remain open. The pipes lining the hole must face extremely high temperatures, as well as acidic environments that can corrode the metal.

“We’re working on selecting the right materials and figuring out how best to design these things so that they fit and survive,” Ingólfsson said.

We know very little about the interior of volcanoes.

If successful, the KMT could offer a wealth of new knowledge about volcanic activity, Gluyas said.

“From a scientific perspective, being able to sample an active magma chamber would provide a wealth of information, which is normally terribly difficult to obtain,” said Gluyas, president of the World Association for the Advancement of Geothermal Energy.

After all, most of what we know about volcanoes is what we see on the surface.


A volcano erupts in Iceland.Hafsteinn Karlsson/Getty Images

But when molten rock turns into lava, it has lost much of the gas that propelled it to the surface, so we know very little about the composition of the magma before it erupts.

“I sometimes insult some scientists when I say that basically everything we know about the interior of a volcano is a kind of estimate, an educated estimate, of course,” Ingólfsson said.

Sampling and monitoring magma directly could yield crucial information about what it’s made of and hopefully help us find ways to trace its path underground. Glassy rock created by freezing magma could also be a gold mine of evidence, as it could contain bubbles that encapsulate precious magmatic gases, according to Gluyas.

“A lot of fundamental science will come out of this and there will be unexpected benefits, but there is a practical part of this, which is a better understanding of the way the Earth behaves and therefore better preparation for potential natural disasters,” he said. Gluyas.

KMT plans to drill a second well dedicated to geothermal research.

A schematic shows two drilling rigs above the magma chamber.A schematic shows two drilling rigs above the magma chamber.

A schematic shows the configuration of the two wells that KMT intends to drill into the ground.KMT

Ingólfsson hopes that one well in a magma chamber could be as productive as 10 other wells elsewhere.

Not only is it very hot down there, but the magma also changes the composition of the rock, which, according to the KMT, could make geothermal energy harvesting more efficient.

“The source of geothermal energy is always magma and getting closer to magma obviously implies greater efficiency,” Ingólfsson said.

His research, he said, could inform new ways to harvest geothermal energy.

“We have the entire Atlantic Ridge offshore. If we combine what we learn at Krafla and with what we know about offshore drilling, then one could envision, at least as a science fiction vision, that it could be used to obtain abundant or infinite energy of the Earth,” he stated.

The image above shows power plants near the well in Krafla.The image above shows power plants near the well in Krafla.

Power plants are shown near the site the KMT intends to drill.KMT

For Gluyas, the technology could be promising, but he questions whether it is necessary at this time.

“If you go anywhere where there is a well-developed volcanic province – Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia, Italy – geothermal energy is hugely underexploited. I’m not sure how much more efficient the systems would be if they were drilled into a magma chamber.” said.

Little time to get a lot of money.

The KMT hopes to begin construction of the first hole in the magma chamber in 2026, but it still has a long way to go.

Their biggest challenge is raising the money to build the research center and start drilling the holes. Ingólfsson estimates that the KMT will need to raise more than $100 million from government organizations and industry partners.

“Sometimes we say that geology has always been setting the wrong poker table,” says Ingólfsson.

“In space research, telescopes are built, such as gamma ray telescopes, which cost billions of dollars. But in geology, two or 300 million is really expensive,” he said.

But Ingólfsson is confident.

“In our opinion, the chances of us achieving something great are very high,” he said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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