Scientists' Drill Hits Magma: Only Third Time on Record

Jun 29, 2009
The geothermal field at Krafla, Iceland, where a borehole being drilled for a geothermal energy research project hit molten rock at 6,900 feet. (Peter Schiffman/UC Davis)

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists drilling a borehole deep into Iceland’s rocky crust to explore new methods of using geothermal energy hit a major roadblock on Thursday: Their drill ran into molten rock at a depth of 6,900 feet.

“This is only the third time that has ever flowed into a geothermal drill hole, as far as we know,” said Peter Schiffman, a geology professor at UC Davis and member of the international team conducting the study. “A research project in Hawaii hit magma in 2005, and in 1977 magma erupted out the top of a producing geothermal well not far from our site in Krafla, Iceland.”

In Hawaii, stopped. And Schiffman is doubtful that this project, known as the Iceland Deep Drilling Project, or IDDP, can continue. But if the magma body is narrow — as he and the research team expect it is — it may be possible to bore through it or around it, he said. “We’ve been able to keep circulation of cold water through the drill string, so our equipment is still functional.”

The team had originally planned to drill to 11,500 feet, or almost 2.2 miles into the earth.

The main purpose of IDDP — an international research effort supported by the National Science Foundation, the International Continental Drilling Program, Alcoa Inc., and Icelandic power companies — is to investigate the economic feasibility of extracting energy from hydrothermal systems that are under extremely high temperatures and pressures.

Drilling began at the site near Krafla in northeast Iceland in December 2008. After reaching a depth of 2,600 feet, the project was put on hold for two months before resuming in early March.

Around the middle of April, Schiffman said, drilling became difficult. “We kept drilling, but had lots of technical problems. We just seemed to be stuck at the same depth,” he said. “Just yesterday we realized that we had run into magma.”

Schiffman is receiving updates from his UC Davis colleagues who are onsite in Iceland: geology professor Robert Zierenberg and graduate student Naomi Marks. The pair reported that a phenomenon known as “steam flashing” seems to have occurred on Thursday (June 25), when drilling fluid came in contact with magma, creating an explosion. Glass shards removed from the hole provided evidence for this, Schiffman said. These most likely formed when the fluid, which is principally water, quenched molten rock.

Based on geophysical mapping of the area, Schiffman said, the team suspects that it has encountered a small offshoot of a larger magma body that lies more than two miles below the surface. “Whether we can keep drilling or not will depend on the thickness of this magma finger, and whether it’s horizontally or vertically oriented,” he said.

If the hole cannot be drilled any deeper, it might prove useful for testing a system of geothermal energy extraction that involves sending cold water into one borehole to be retrieved as superheated steam from deeper holes nearby, Schiffman said.

More information about IDDP can be found at www.iddp.is/about.php

Provided by UC Davis (news : web)

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User comments : 24

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jyro
2.9 / 5 (12) Jun 29, 2009
oh cool, lets create a volcano. How much will that cost in CO2 credits?
stupidAlgebraNeverWorking
4.3 / 5 (3) Jun 29, 2009
Sounds like someone had a bad case of the Mondays XD
Kinda surprised that this is only the third time though...
weewilly
4 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2009
How do you cap something like that if it can come oozing up to the surface?
Arikin
4 / 5 (8) Jun 29, 2009
Why is this bad? Their stated purpose is "to explore new methods of using geothermal energy". I would say they found it!

We use nuclear heat just to boil water into steam for power. Sounds like you just need a way to harness the steam that results from water touching the magma... I would call that geothermal energy.
jeffsaunders
4 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2009
seems like they can start experimenting sooner than expected. but if a thin finger of magma it will cool quickly and thus have a shorter life.
Birger
5 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2009
There is an unexpexted bonus to the story: Since the event is extraordinary, it will attract attention, and possibly more investors to this -and other- geothermal energy projects. Iceland itself is too badly hit by the recession for the government to provide more funding for research, so the concept depends on private investors.
CWFlink
3.8 / 5 (6) Jun 30, 2009
"We use nuclear heat just to boil water into steam for power."

Interestingly, I've seen claims that most geothermal heat energy is due to the decay of thorium and other radioactive materials in the earth's crust. The claim is that any kenetic energy left over from the formation of the planet would have dissipated by now. If true, we've been living on top of a nuclear reactor for all of human evolution!

As to why not simply use THIS reactor rather than build man-made ones... the answer can be found in the sustainability and safty of the energy source.

We understand the aging mechanisms in a nuclear reactor and can refuel it and decommission it. Poke a hole in the magma and we don't yet know how long we can draw heat from it (if it cools gradually) or if we end up with some sudden blow-out.... including release of potentially radioactive gasses or dust clouds.

I'd like to hear someone discuss the balance the risks: a) man-made nuclear power with underground disposal of wastes products, and b) geothermal blow-out. As I understand it, we fear the contamination of ground water from degrading nuclear wastes stored deep in mines. Why don't we fear the contamination of groundwater from holes drilled through unknown formations of, potentially radioactive, certainly chemically active, superheated rock?

Are we not "most foolish" when we paralize ourselves with fears of well-known dangers, while blythly failing to realize how much greater is our ignorance of unknown risks?

E.g. Chernobyl, the only "level 7" nuclear disaster, releasing 400 times more fall out than the bomb at Hiroshima, led to the eventual death of roughly as many as died on the morning of 9-11. Yet in less than a decade we question our fear of terrorists but still firmly fear the impact of nuclear power.

Reality: even global warming, under the most extreme cases mankind could cause, pales in comparison the the disasters documented in the geological record. Not that we should not fear the potential of climate change, but rather we should respect our earth's history and be more humble about our ignorance.

As to nuclear power. We may be fearful in this country and resist using it, but the rest of the world is going ahead with it, including countries with unstable governments and much less concern about the safety of mankind. And, to the degree there IS a risk of radioactive polution, it is global in scope. Our self-restraint will not restrain the French, let along the North Koreans or the Iranians. The experiments are underway... we should be using all our abililities to ensure safety, not simply to ensure ignorance (on our part) until it is too late.
El_Nose
2.7 / 5 (3) Jun 30, 2009
Wait wait wait .... why would magma be radioactive again --- my understanding is that this would be HIGHLY unlikely - but i agree reactors we know well but this could be as dangerous as accidentally making a volcano. -- Anyone ever play the old PC game alpha centauri - kind of like civilization but on a different planet and you get a technology to make Thermal Boreholes, which drill down to the mohorovic discontinuity for energy , great energy source but every 70 years or so they might become a volcano by accident.
Soylent
5 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2009
We use nuclear heat just to boil water into steam for power. Sounds like you just need a way to harness the steam that results from water touching the magma... I would call that geothermal energy.


I would call that nuclear decay heat.
Soylent
5 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2009
Wait wait wait .... why would magma be radioactive again...


Because uranium and thorium and their equilibrium decay products is found everywhere; that's where radon gas comes from.

Lava is molten because of the heat generated by nuclear decay and because it has a thick insulating blanket with kilometers of rock on-top of it.

Lava happens to have a quite a lot more uranium and thorium than your average crust, so if you're paranoid about adding a bit of radon gas to the natural background I suppose you might find geothermal unerving.

Not even in places like Ramsar, Iran where background radiation from radon is up to 200 mSv/year in some parts is it possible to detect any increase in cancer risk. That doesn't mean the LNT hypothesis is necessarily false, it just means radiation is a lousy carcinogen compared to your everyday stuff like metabolism or particulate pollution.
finitesolutions
2 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2009
If plain water explodes on contact with the magma let's pump a different substance. Once the magma cools down and the liquid stays cool let's dig some more and pump more liquid. We have 12,756 km until we reach the other side.
E_L_Earnhardt
not rated yet Jun 30, 2009
A lead-lined bore-hole, sacrificed bit, and they still may have a producing well! It was a good idea! Iceland needs all the power it can get!
Quantum_Conundrum
2 / 5 (4) Jun 30, 2009
Nuclear power is cleaner than geothermal.

Geothermal involves sulfates and other compounds which are highly toxic and corrosive.

On the other hand, well designed and constructed nuclear reactors produce almost no net pollution and leave us only with waste rods which could easily be disposed of by shipping them into the sun on a rocket, or dumping them into the challenger deep where they will be crushed to oblivion 7 miles under water, and subducted back into the earth's mantle.
goldengod
1 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009
Oh, and if we accidentally screw up the disposal method then what?

I like the potential of a thermal, solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, oil, coal.

The trick is to reduce the pollution. That's where all the money should be going right now. Employing all the unemployed people to contribute to figuring out how to use energy more efficiently and cleanly.

Then everyone would be earning money and decreasing our negative impact on the environment for the future of our species.
sender
not rated yet Jul 01, 2009
should use laser or microwave drilling equipment to bypass magma, tbh i dont know why regular metal drills are still used
Choice
not rated yet Jul 02, 2009
Sounds like what is needed is something along the lines of the flexible oil drilling bits that can snake around and find mother lode after mother lode. First harness this finger until it cools then move elsewhere from the same borehole.
superhuman
not rated yet Jul 04, 2009
It should be possible to build a drill specifically designed to harness thermal energy of the magma. It may have to be moved from time to time but it certainly is a vast energy source which deserves more attention.

Lava happens to have a quite a lot more uranium and thorium than your average crust

Any source for this claim? Why should magma differ in composition from the surrounding crust?

In any case it may be possible to contain radioactivity if the magma will act predictably enough.
damnfuct
5 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2009
should use laser or microwave drilling equipment to bypass magma, tbh i dont know why regular metal drills are still used


They use regular drills because it's cheaper.
pandora
not rated yet Jul 05, 2009
IMHO this is pure serendipity. We should look at this as an opportunity not a mistake. Please check out the following website related to this issue.
http://www.magma-power.com/

I would be greatly interested to read responses to the information presented there.
superhuman
not rated yet Jul 06, 2009
I would be greatly interested to read responses to the information presented there.

Magma energy is certainly worth investigating, commercializing it may be quite challenging but it should be possible.

It will probably be much easier in places where magma is close to the surface as with deep drilling there is the problem of how to efficiently get the energy to the surface.

With high pressure steam it's easy as it will move to the surface on it's own. Magma on the other hand will probably cool and solidify on the way.

Perhaps it would be possible to use metal heat exchanging heads connected with water pipes. This however will require careful positioning of the drill relative to the magma, and it might be impractical for large scale energy extraction.

Much depends on how stable magma sources are, how much energy can be extracted before they cool down and retreat and so on.

Drilling into magma can also be dangerous, a good example is the mud volcano created by gas exploration drilling two years ago in Indonesia. Poor drilling techniques may have been at least partly responsible here since the well was not properly secured AFAIR:
http://www.scienc...3238.htm
Soylent
not rated yet Jul 06, 2009
Why should magma differ in composition from the surrounding crust?


Because it has not been subjected to the errosion and weathering that tends to remove uranium and thorium from the exposed surface of the crust. Radon has a fairly short half-life, if it does not escape into the air before it decays its daughter products do not get into people's lungs. That's why only the thin surface layer maters as far as radon is concerned. More over, radon is a noble gas and will not form chemical bonds; it will be more mobile, possibly a lot more mobile, in molten rock as opposed to solid.

In any case it may be possible to contain radioactivity if the magma will act predictably enough.


I don't find it particularly worrisome since I'm not convinced the LNT model is true for such tiny doses as background radiation(it has not possible to detect an increased lung cancer rate in parts of Ramsar, Iran where background radiation from radon is ~100 mSv/year).

Mostly it just irks me that if a nuclear plant leaks some tritium amounting to as much radiation exposure to nearby inhabitants as eating a banana(some of that potassium is potassium-40...) it ends up on the evening news as if it were a major disaster. Nobody bothers one hoot about much larger, routine radiation exposures from other industries. E.g. all that uranium and thorium that goes up the chimney from coal plants, the radon and daughter products that gets delivered into peoples homes with the natural gas they burn or the radon released by a mountain of phosphate mine tailings(phosphate rock typically has ~100 ppm U, versus ~3 ppm for average crust and less than 1 ppm in average soil).
Birger
not rated yet Jul 06, 2009
"Sounds like what is needed is something along the lines of the flexible oil drilling bits that can snake around and find mother lode after mother lode."


-Does anyone know the temperature tolerances for high-end drilling equipment? Unfortunately, the magma temperature is not mentioned.
BTW, since Sweden has the formal leadership of the European Union for the next six months, maybe they can push for more geothermal tech cooperation between the other EU countries and their Icelandic brethren, even though Iceland is not part of the EU.
peret
not rated yet Jul 06, 2009

Lava happens to have a quite a lot more uranium and thorium than your average crust


Any source for this claim? Why should magma differ in composition from the surrounding crust?

All heavy metals, and many non-metallics, in the crust were originally leached out of magma by superheated water and deposited where the water cooled. That's why mining districts tend to cluster along fault lines.

Velanarris
not rated yet Jul 06, 2009
They had some severe problems with water induced geothermal in california. Al Gore's side business had big problems when one of their investments received a cease and desist in Sweden for a similar execise.

Blasting water down a borehole to react with magma causes earthquakes. Nothing really beyond a 3 on the scale but who knows what is possible on a fully functioning site.

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