View Full Version : Iceland is drilling for "supercritical steam"

15th December 2016, 15:50

Source: BBC (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38296251)

Geologists say they are close to creating the hottest borehole in the world.

They are drilling into the heart of a volcano in the south-west of Iceland. They have told the BBC that they should reach 5km down, where temperatures are expected to exceed 500C (932F), in the next couple of weeks. The researchers want to bring steam from the deep well back up to the surface to provide an important source of energy.

"We hope that this will open new doors for the geothermal industry globally to step into an era of more production," said Asgeir Margeirsson, CEO of the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) (http://iddp.is/), a collaboration between scientists, industry and the Icelandic government.

"That’s the aim - that’s the hope. We have never been this deep before, we have never been into rock this hot before, but we are optimistic."

The project is located on the Reykjanes peninsula, where a volcano last erupted 700 years ago. A huge rig stands out against the black lava fields; inside a drill has been operating for 24 hours a day since August. It has now descended nearly 4,500m, and the team expects it to hit its target depth of 5km by the end of the year. Gudmundur Omar Fridleifsson, from Icelandic energy company HS Orka (http://www.hsorka.is/), is the project's chief geologist.

He shows me thin cores of black basalt rock that have been collected from deep beneath the ground.

"It’s getting hotter - and that's what we want," he said.

"We don’t expect to drill into magma, but we are drilling into hot rock. And by hot rock, we mean 400 to 500C."

Close to the rig, sulphurous steam is blasting from the ground, blending into the grey sky above.

Iceland, sitting on the boundary between two major tectonic plates, is one of the most volcanically active places in the world.

Harnessing this energy through geothermal technology is already well established here.

"In this area at Reykjanes, we typically drill to 2km or 3km depth to harness the steam, to run power plants and produce clean, renewable electricity," explained Asgeir Margeirsson.

"We want to see if the resources go deeper than that."

When the drill gets to 5km, the team expects to find molten rock mixed with water. But with the extreme heat and immense pressure found at this depth, the water becomes what is known as "supercritical steam".

It is neither a liquid nor a gas, but it holds far more energy than either. And it is this supercritical steam that the team wants to bring back up to the surface to convert into electricity.


Geologists collect thin cores of black basalt rock from deep underground.

They believe its special properties mean it could produce up to 10 times as much energy as the steam from conventional geothermal wells.

Mr Margeirsson said: "If this works, in the future we would need to drill fewer wells to produce the same amount of energy, meaning we would touch less surface, which means less environmental impact and hopefully lower costs.

"But that is if this works. This is full-scale research and development - we don’t know what the outcome will be."

And there is a good reason to be cautious. With volcanoes, expect the unexpected. In 2009, the IDDP team attempted to drill deep down into another volcanic site. But at 2,100m, they accidentally hit a shallow reservoir of magma. Footage on the internet shows black smoke billowing from the well - and the drill was destroyed. So is it really a good idea to tamper with these complex and destructive forces of nature?

Simon Redfern, professor of mineral physics at the University of Cambridge (https://www.cam.ac.uk/), told the BBC: "I think the risks are rather minor. The likelihood is that there will be natural eruptions before any that are generated by human activity."


If the effort works, it might mean fewer wells will need to be drilled to produce the same amount of energy.

If the drill does hit magma, because it is under pressure, it would be likely to come to the surface rapidly, he explained.

"It would come out rather like lancing a boil or popping a spot. It would cause huge problems for the drilling operation itself, but it is unlikely to cause anything more significant than that."

Despite Iceland having more than 300 volcanoes, Prof Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a volcanologist at the University of Iceland (http://english.hi.is/), says there is still much to learn about them.

"We have many models of what the interior of a volcano looks like, but actually most of these models of active volcanoes are based on indirect observations," he explained.

"We can see seismic waves pass through them, or we can do some geophysical exploration, or we can study ground deformation.

"But actually, we have very few in situ measurements of what the interior of a volcano looks like."

This drilling project, however, would give geologists a unique vantage point, he said.

"There is always some risk... but there is also a risk if we don't do projects like this.

"By this project I think we can really make fundamental discoveries about how volcanoes work, and learn about their properties and conditions - and when magma could erupt to the surface."

The IDDP team says it is currently "drilling blind", which means no rocky debris is coming back up to the surface. Instead, it is somehow being absorbed into the surrounding rocks. And without being able to examine the rock, it means the geologists really are heading into the unknown.

However, with only a few hundred metres to go, they are optimistic that the world's hottest borehole is now within their sights.

The IDDP project is funded by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) (http://www.icdp-online.org/home/), the National Science Foundation (https://www.nsf.gov/) in the US, EU Horizon 2020 (https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/), as well as energy companies (including HS Orka, Statoil, Landsvirkjun, Orkuveita Reykjavíkur and Orkustofnun) and the Icelandic government.


Source: BBC (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38296251)

15th December 2016, 16:45
Thanks for the heads up ...

Looks dangerously risky indeed ...


15th December 2016, 17:44
Thanks for the heads up ...

Looks dangerously risky indeed ...


While the drilling itself is most certainly a risky business, I think the idea behind this initiative actually make sense. If you consider how nuclear power plants actually work ─ see below this paragraph ─ then this endeavor would offer roughly the same amount of energy, but without any radiation, and they'd only be tapping into the resources already provided for by our planet, so there's no need to enrich uranium first.

Now, most people don't really know how nuclear power plants actually work, but it's not all that esoteric. A nuclear reactor simply uses the energy released by the process of nuclear fission to heat up a large body of water ─ contained in a closed circuit ─ to the point where it becomes highly energetic steam, and this then drives a good old-fashioned steam turbine, which in turn powers electrical generators, just like the internal combustion engine in your car drives an alternator or (in the old days) a dynamo. In US-made nuclear warships and submarines, the steam turbine even drives the propellers directly, whereas in Russian nuclear submarines, the propellers are driven by electric motors, feeding off the batteries, which in turn are powered by the nuclear steam turbine.

The extreme heat from the steam they're drilling for in Iceland comes close to the temperatures of the steam in the turbine of a nuclear power plant, so it may provide for the same amount of energy as a traditional power plant, but ─ as I said higher up already ─ without requiring any uranium enrichment and without that any radioactive waste remains afterward.

So I think it's actually a very clever idea, albeit not one without significant danger. But then again, neither are nuclear power plants. In fact, fissures in the housings of nuclear reactors may even pose a real and present radiation hazard to the population of a large area, and here in Belgium, all of the nuclear reactors currently in use have upon inspection revealed to have fissures in their housing. Certain Belgian political parties have already long been striving for a shutdown of these outdated nuclear power plants ─ and they were indeed originally scheduled to have been shut down many years ago already ─ but the more conservative politicians and the corporation that owns and exploits these power plants refuse to do so.

15th December 2016, 18:43
I agree with your assessment regarding nuclear energy past and present usage ...
It will be interesting to see where this newer energy tech drilling will go ...
My immediate concerns would be with the safety and regulatory factors.

Note - especially now with the down trend with big Oil's departure, I also sense other arctic
border nations will also expand on this energy harvesting - with hopefully all due cautions?

PS ~ mankind's greed is always a wild card factor in every business endeavor.