Steam From Magma Well Possible Energy Source

It was a classic case of one door closing and another one opening – except in this case, the door came in the form of magma, which brought a halt to one energy research project but quickly became a source of keen interest in its own right.

Here’s the story: Geologists doing research on Krafla volcano in Iceland were hoping to drill 15,000 feet below the surface to test whether geothermal fluids at supercritical pressures and temperatures could be exploited as sources of power. Alas, less than halfway to the goal depth, magma began flowing into their  well, forcing them to stop the drilling. At that point, the team completed the hole as a production well. What came next was a rather happy surprise.

Krafla volcano, iceland, geothermal research

image via Bjarni Palssen

“When the well was tested, high pressure dry steam flowed to the surface with a temperature of 400 degrees Celsius or 750 degrees Fahrenheit, coming from a depth shallower than the magma,” said Wilfred Elders, a geologist at UC Riverside whose team was funded by $3.5 million from the National Science Foundation and $1.5 million from the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.

Elders and his mates figured the well could generate 25 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 25,000 to 30,000 homes — if sent through the right kind of turbine. That’s three to five times what a typical high-temperature geothermal well, using 570-degree Fahrenheit wet steam, would produce. “In the future these could become attractive sources of high-grade energy,” Elders said.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.