Geologists get unique and unexpected opportunity to study magma

February 16, 2011, University of California - Riverside
This is a view of the Krafla volcano, Iceland, across the explosion crater Viti that erupted in 1787, showing the drilling rig. The borehole encountered molten rock at 6,500 feet depth. Credit: G.O. Fridleifsson.

Geologists drilling an exploratory geothermal well in 2009 in the Krafla volcano in Iceland encountered a problem they were simply unprepared for: magma (molten rock or lava underground) which flowed unexpectedly into the well at 2.1 kilometers (6,900 ft) depth, forcing the researchers to terminate the drilling.

"To the best of our knowledge, only one previous instance of flowing into a geothermal well while drilling has been documented," said Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, who led the research team. "We were drilling a well that was designed to search for very deep – 4.5 kilometers (15,000 feet) – geothermal resources in the volcano. While the magma flow interrupted our project, it gave us a unique opportunity to study the magma and test a very hot geothermal system as an energy source."

Currently, a third of the electric power and 95 percent of home heating in Iceland is produced from steam and hot water that occurs naturally in volcanic rocks.

This is a view of the exploratory geothermal well during flow testing. Credit: Bjarni Palssen.

"The economics of generating electric power from such geothermal steam improves the higher its temperature and pressure," Elders explained. "As you drill deeper into a hot zone the temperature and pressure rise, so it should be possible to reach an environment where a denser fluid with very high heat content, but also with unusually low viscosity occurs, so-called 'supercritical water.' Although such supercritical water is used in large coal-fired electric power plants, no one had tried to use supercritical water that should occur naturally in the deeper zones of geothermal areas."

Elders and colleagues report in the March issue of Geology (the research paper was published online on Feb. 3) that although the Krafla volcano, like all other volcanoes in Iceland, is basaltic (a volcanic rock containing 45-50 percent silica), the magma they encountered is a rhyolite (a volcanic rock containing 65-70 percent silica).

"Our analyses show that this magma formed by partial melting of certain basalts within the Krafla volcano," Elders said. "The occurrence of minor amounts of rhyolite in some basalt volcanoes has always been something of a puzzle. It had been inferred that some unknown process in the source area of magmas, in the mantle deep below the crust of the Earth, allows some silica-rich rhyolite melt to form in addition to the dominant silica-poor basalt magma."

Elders explained that in geothermal systems water reacts with and alters the composition of the rocks, a process termed "hydrothermal alteration." "Our research shows that the rhyolite formed when a mantle-derived basaltic magma encountered hydrothermally altered basalt, and partially melted and assimilated that rock," he said.

This is the Iceland Drilling Company rig at the Krafla geothermal field, in northern Iceland, that drilled into 900 C rhyolite magma at 2,140 meters depth in June 2009. Credit: W. Elders, UC Riverside.

Elders and his team studied the well within the Krafla caldera as part of the Iceland Deep Drilling Project, an industry-government consortium, to test whether geothermal fluids at supercritical pressures and temperatures could be exploited as sources of power. Elders's research team received support of $3.5 million from the National Science Foundation and $1.5 million from the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.

In the spring of 2009 Elders and his colleagues progressed normally with drilling the well to 2 kilometers (6,600 feet) depth. In the next 100 meters (330 feet), however, multiple acute drilling problems occurred. In June 2009, the drillers determined that at 2104 meters (6,900 feet) depth, the rate of penetration suddenly increased and the torque on the drilling assembly increased, halting its rotation. When the drill string was pulled up more than 10 meters (33 feet) and lowered again, the drill bit became stuck at 2095 meters (6,875 feet). An intrusion of magma had filled the lowest 9 meters (30 feet) of the open borehole. The team terminated the drilling and completed the hole as a production well.

"When the well was tested, high pressure dry steam flowed to the surface with a temperature of 400 Celsius or 750 Fahrenheit, coming from a depth shallower than the magma," Elders said. "We estimated that this steam could generate 25 megawatts of electricity if passed through a suitable turbine, which is enough electricity to power 25,000 to 30,000 homes. What makes this well an attractive source of energy is that typical high-temperature geothermal wells produce only 5 to 8 megawatts of electricity from 300 Celsius or 570 Fahrenheit wet steam."

Elders believes it should be possible to find reasonably shallow bodies of magma, elsewhere in Iceland and the world, wherever young volcanic rocks occur.

"In the future these could become attractive sources of high-grade energy," said Elders, who got involved in the project in 2000 when a group of Icelandic engineers and scientists invited him to join them to explore concepts of developing geothermal energy.

The Iceland Deep Project has not abandoned the search for supercritical geothermal resources. The project plans to drill a second deep hole in southwest Iceland in 2013.

Explore further: Scientists' Drill Hits Magma: Only Third Time on Record

Related Stories

Scientists' Drill Hits Magma: Only Third Time on Record

June 29, 2009

( -- 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.

Hot stuff: Magma at shallow depth under Hawaii

December 13, 2010

Ohio State University researchers have found a new way to gauge the depth of the magma chamber that forms the Hawaiian Island volcanic chain, and determined that the magma lies much closer to the surface than previously thought.

The Inexhaustible Energy Source Beneath Our Feet

May 24, 2004

According to the expert Willy Gehrer, the environmentally friendly generation of electricity from geothermal sources is going to play an important role in the future of energy production. “I’m convinced that in 20 years ...

Making geothermal more productive

September 8, 2009

University of Utah researchers will inject cool water and pressurized water into a "dry" geothermal well during a five-year, $10.2 million study aimed at boosting the productivity of geothermal power plants and making them ...

Rocks under High Water Pressure

August 9, 2007

Today, Thursday the 9th of August 2007, the GFZ Potsdam, Germany's National Lab for Geosciences is starting a new series of experiments at the geothermal research site Gross Schönebeck.

Recommended for you

Seismologists introduce new measure of earthquake ruptures

March 21, 2018

A team of seismologists has developed a new measurement of seismic energy release that can be applied to large earthquakes. Called the Radiated Energy Enhancement Factor (REEF), it provides a measure of earthquake rupture ...

Conservation costs can be higher than bargained for

March 21, 2018

Sweeping policies that reward people in environmentally sensitive areas for returning their farmlands to nature have been lauded as ecological triumphs. But a new Michigan State University study shows that over time some ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 16, 2011
its all fun and good until it accidentally turns into a volcano ... but hey that rarely happens right... right ...
2.9 / 5 (9) Feb 16, 2011
its all fun and good until it accidentally turns into a volcano ... but hey that rarely happens right... right ...

Well, in theory, leaching heat away from the magma chamber should decrease the probability and severity of an eruption over the long term.

In order to make 25 megawatts at that temperature, this system would need to vaporizing about 5600 gallons of water per minute, since turbines aren't 100% efficient.

The amount of electricity alone is equivalent to the chemical energy associated with the combustion of 16489 gallons of gasoline per day, 6,018,000 gallons gasoline per year.

The total heat leached from the volcano is going to be much higher than this, and if they have the system set up well, they can use the condensation, which is still near boiling temps, to heat homes and businesses.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. They have "free" energy, but live on a ticking bomb.
not rated yet Feb 16, 2011
Nevermind the world is already sitting on several ticking timebomb volcanoes.
3.4 / 5 (11) Feb 16, 2011
Well, in theory, leaching heat away from the magma chamber should decrease the probability and severity of an eruption over the long term.
Forgive me but, just what do you base this statement on? Are you a geologist or do you have some training or experience which would tell you this?

I am going to assume that you do not and that this is just another example of your outrageous propensity for asserting uninformed and ignorant opinions like theyre fact. Prove me wrong or STFU.
2 / 5 (4) Feb 16, 2011

Conservation laws demands that there isn't "new" energy being made in the volcano. So if you are heating water then the heat in the volcano is decreasing. The energy for an eruption comes ultimately from the temperature of the magma.
3.8 / 5 (4) Feb 16, 2011

Conservation laws demands that there isn't "new" energy being made in the volcano. So if you are heating water then the heat in the volcano is decreasing. The energy for an eruption comes ultimately from the temperature of the magma.
I would say the energy of the eruption comes from the pressure of the magma if I thought I knew something about it, but I dont and so I wouldn't act as if I did.

I would also think that 'new energy', whatever the hell that might be, comes ultimately from whatever the volcano is connected to. You do not know what you are talking about, and do not stop to consider that before you dump.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 17, 2011
>digging hole
>hit magma stream and get set on fire
>sure is minecraft in here.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.