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.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.