Icelandic scientists tap into molten magma for record geothermal energy production

An accidental breakthrough into a chamber beneath the Earth's crust has led to a possible breakthrough in geothermal energy production.

Imagine you’re drilling into the ground. Quite deeply - you’re looking for sources of geothermal energy, where the heat from deep in the Earth is warm enough to turn water into steam, and thus turn turbines, creating electricity. Imagine realising that you’ve not just drilled deeply into the crust, but that you’ve accidentally broken straight into a chamber of molten magma more than 5km below the surface.

That happened in Iceland in 2009. It’s the only the second time that it’s known to have happened, the other being in Hawaii in 2007. Both places are hotbeds of volcanism, and while the magma chamber wasn’t an expected discovery (it was only 2.1km deep), scientists in Iceland and Hawaii chose different paths of action. In Hawaii, they plugged the hole with concrete. In Iceland, they left it open, wondering if it could be of use for geothermal research - and a study published this week has confirmed that, yes, it has been.

The Icelandic Deep Drilling Project, IDDP, and the country’s National Power Company reinforced the borehole, called IDDP-1, with a steel casing. The temperatures of up to 1000oC built-up, generating super-hot vents of steam that sustained temperatures as high as 450oC. That far exceeds the standard heat geothermal power plants are able to use, and the borehole was estimated to be able to produce 36MW of power by itself. That’s more than half of the existing 60MW Krafla geothermal plant nearby.

In the study, published in the journal Geothermic, could herald a new method for producing geothermal energy - of particular interest in Iceland, a country that relies upon geothermal for 65 percent of its energy, with more than 90 percent of homes being heated by geothermal energy. It might be possible to use magma chambers to get water to a supercritical state. That's when the normal rules of liquid and gas no longer exist, and its molecules hold extraordinary amounts of energy. Harness that, and energy yields might go even higher.

The Krafla geothermal power plant, Iceland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty Images
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It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.