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 magma flowing into a geothermal well while drilling has been documented," said Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of geology 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.
"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.
"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 Drilling Project has not abandoned the search for supercritical geothermal resources. The project plans to drill a second deep hole in southwest Iceland in 2013.
Elders was joined in the research project by researchers at HS Orka hf (HS Power Co.), Iceland; UC Davis; Stanford University; Iceland GeoSurvey; Landsvirkjun Power, Iceland; the U.S. Geological Survey; New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology; and the University of Oregon, Eugene.
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