Geothermal Strides in Iceland Could Benefit California

Posted by Tom Denham

Mar 10, 2017 12:57:21 PM

In 2009, the Iceland Deep Drilling Project accidentally drilled into a magma reservoir about a mile below the surface when it was planning to construct a conventional geothermal well. As an experiment, researchers poured water down the magma well to see how much energy it could generate, and they ended up creating the most powerful geothermal well ever drilled, generating approximately 30 megawatts of power.

This technology could have many beneficial outcomes anywhere tectonic plates collide and result in magma reservoirs, such as California and offshore in the Pacific Ocean

In the world of clean energy plants, geothermal is not as well known or as widely used as solar or wind. Geothermal heat pumps use hot rocks deep in the ground as a heat source to generate electricity. But if researchers can build a heat pump that taps “liquid” hot rocks, or magma, that is a game changer.

Now the project is plans to do it on a larger scale.

The drilling of a hole that will be three miles deep in southwestern Iceland began in August at a geothermal facility dubbed Thor. The project intends to tap an extension of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where two of Earth's tectonic plates meet.  They believe they will create the hottest hole ever drilled. In this subterranean zone, magma that is released from volcanic activity heats seawater up to temperatures between 750 and 1800 degrees.

“People have drilled into hard rock at this depth, but never before into a fluid system like this," Albert Albertsson, assistant director at Icelandic geothermal energy company HS Orka, told the magazine New Scientist.

The intense pressures at that depth—about 200 times atmospheric pressures—force the superheated water to form "supercritical steam," which is neither liquid nor gas and holds more energy than both. If the project can tap a reservoir of supercritical steam, a geothermal plant could be constructed with a power capacity 10 times that of a normal geothermal plan.

Iceland already generates all of its electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources, but three-fourths of that is hydroelectric power generated from dams. If the IDDP's magma well is successful, it could add a new source of abundant green energy to the country, and the technique could be imitated near fault lines around the world – including California.

Topics: Alternative fuel energy