recommended reading

Why Volcanoes Are the Energy Source of the Future

Pablo Hidalgo/shutterstock.com

In Iceland, scientists have just completed a successful experiment in harnessing energy directly from a volcano.

But first, a little background: In early 2009, I wrote about an audacious project. Scientists in Iceland were going to attempt to drill into a reservoir of water so much hotter than anything tapped before that the water it contained was thought to exist in a fourth state of matter distinct from liquid, solid and steam. This super-heated water, which is in a state known as “supercritical,” that is beyond the point at which a substance can be either a liquid or a gas, exists only under conditions of extreme heat and pressure. Scientists can generate it in the lab, but no one knew if it existed in nature. Researchers believed that in Iceland’s water-logged subterranean depths, close to the fire-breathing hearts of its many volcanoes, they might find supercritical water.

It would be a world-changing discovery, because if you can get supercritical water to the earth’s surface and into a power plant, you can extract ten times as much energy from it as you can from typical steam or hot water. The government of Iceland, various engineering firms and foreign partners were so excited about the potential of supercritical water (also called supercritical steam, since in some ways it behaves like steam) that they envisioned pockmarking Iceland with advanced geothermal power plants with wells extending down into the country’s volcanoes like steel-clad straws, generating so much surplus energy that Iceland could lay power cables to Europe and help its friends on the Continent kick their fossil fuel habit.

But then disaster struck: In June of 2009 (pdf) scientists on what was known as the Iceland Deep Drilling Project struck magma—actual liquid rock—with their drill. That, I was told at the time, was the end of their quest to find a reservoir of supercritical water flowing in the bowels of a volcano. Hitting magma before the supercritical water meant no more drilling to a target depth of 4.5km (2.8 miles) below the earth’s surface—everyone assumed that the project was a failure.

Fast forward to the present day, and a surprising result has been just announced in the journal Geothermics: Rather than give up when their initial plan failed, the engineers decided to see whether the hole they drilled would form a reservoir of usable hot water on its own, as water from the surrounding, fractured rock flowed past the magma. Astonishingly, it worked. Two years later, the scientists were able to draw water from their well at 450°C (842°F), a world record.

While 450°C is not hot enough at atmospheric pressure to be supercritical, it still contains an enormous amount of usable energy. As a result, engineers estimated they could use the well to create a power plant capable of generating 36 megawattsof electricity. That’s 20 times less than what a typical coal-fired power plant can generate, but it’s often the case that a geothermal power plant will have more than one well. Plus, geothermal power doesn’t come with any fuel costs or appreciable carbon emissions.

So can the Icelandic Deep Drilling project ultimately be judged a success? While it didn’t achieve its stated and rather outlandish original goal, the engineers involved did manage a world first: tapping directly into a volcano and transforming the molten rock into a source of power. It’s been estimated that only a small fraction of Iceland’s geothermal resources have been tapped, and the potential to drill directly into volcanoes could mean that the country could become the renewable power plant for Europe, after all. Unlike wind and solar, geothermal power never switches off.

(Image via Pablo Hidalgo/Shutterstock.com)

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

    Download
  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.