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Iceland’s Magma Could Become High-grade Energy Source

February 17, 2011

Geologists in Iceland discovered a big surprise while drilling an exploratory geothermal well in 2009 in the Krafla volcano:  the presence of underground lava, known as magma, flowing into the well at a depth of 6,900 feet (2.1 kilometers).

“To the best of our knowledge, only one previous instance has been documented of magma flowing into a geothermal well while drilling,” said Wilfred Elders, a geologist at the University of California, Riverside, who led the research team.

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, said Leonard Johnson, program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences.

“We were drilling a well designed to search for very deep–4.5 kilometers (15,000 feet)–geothermal resources in the volcano,” Elders said.

“While the magma flow interrupted our project, it gave us a unique opportunity to test a very hot geothermal system as an energy source.”

Currently, one-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.

“The economics of generating electric power from such geothermal steam improves the higher its temperature and pressure,” Elders said.

“As you drill deeper into a hot zone, the temperature and pressure rise. 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 the supercritical water that should occur naturally in the deeper zones of geothermal areas,” Elders said.

The scientists said that although the Krafla volcano, like other volcanoes in Iceland, is basaltic (a volcanic rock containing 45-50 percent silica), the magma they discovered is a rhyolite (a volcanic rock containing 65-70 percent silica).

“Our analyses show that this magma formed by partial melting of 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 a silica-rich rhyolite melt to form–in addition to the dominant silica-poor basalt magma.”

In geothermal systems, water reacts with and alters the composition of the rocks in a process known as “hydrothermal alteration”, Elders explained.

“Our research shows that the rhyolite formed when a mantle-derived basaltic magma encountered hydrothermally altered basalt, and partially melted and assimilated that rock.”

In the spring of 2009, Elders and colleagues progressed normally with drilling the well to a depth of 6,600 feet (2 kilometers).  However, in drilling the next 330 feet (100 meters) multiple acute drilling problems occurred.

The drillers determined that at a depth of 6,900 feet (2,104 meters), 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 33 feet (10 meters) and lowered again, the drill bit became stuck at 6,875 feet (2,095 meters).

An intrusion of magma had filled the lowest 30 feet (9 meters) of the open borehole, forcing the team to terminate the drilling and complete the hole as a production well.

“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,” Elders said.

The scientists estimated that this steam could generate 25 megawatts of electricity if passed through a suitable turbine.  This amount of electricity could power 25,000 to 30,000 homes.

“What makes this well an attractive source of energy,” said Elders, “is that typical high-temperature geothermal wells produce only 5 to 8 megawatts of electricity from 300 degrees Celsius or 570 degrees Fahrenheit wet steam.”

He 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.

The Iceland Deep Drilling Project plans to drill a second deep hole in southwest Iceland in 2013.

Elders and colleagues report their findings in the March issue of the journal GEOLOGY, published by the Geological Society of America.

Image 1: View of the Krafla volcano, Iceland, and drill rig across the explosion crater Viti. Credit: G.O. Fridleifsson

Image 2: The exploratory geothermal well during flow testing at the Krafla volcano. Credit: Bjarni Palssen

Image 3: The Iceland Drilling Company rig that drilled into magma; the Leirhnjukur hot spring is shown. Credit: W. Elders, UC-Riverside

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