Why Iceland is about to drill towards the center of a volcano

Why Iceland is planning to drill towards the center of a volcano

MISE & Agrave; DAY

With its crater filled with turquoise blue water, its fumaroles from which steam, sulfur and boiling muddy water gush out in a smell of rotten eggs, the Krafla volcano is one of the natural wonders of the Iceland, reigning in the northeast of the island.

This is where an international alliance is preparing to drill more than two kilometers deep, directly into the volcano, in order to create the first underground magma observatory in the world, a Jules Verne project that has also energy targets.

Launched in 2014 and with a first drilling scheduled for 2024, this large plan estimated at $ 100 million is supported by scientists and engineers from 38 research institutes and companies in eleven countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

Called “Krafla Magma Testbed” (KMT), it aims to reach a pocket filled with magma. Because unlike surface lava, molten rock miles deep is still unknown land.

“There is no such observatory and we have never observed underground magma, apart from three fortuitous encounters during drilling” in Hawaii, Kenya and Iceland, explains to AFP Paolo Papale, vulcanologist at the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology and associated with the project.

The project aims both at progress in fundamental science, in the exploitation of so-called “super hot” geothermal energy as well as the prediction of volcanic eruptions and their risks.

“Knowing where the magma is is vital to being well prepared,” says Mr. Papale. “Without it, we are almost blind.”

The first phase of drilling, which is expected to cost $ 25 million, includes several exploration holes around and below the magma and is expected to begin in 2024.

Drilling, which is kept open, will achieve magma and take samples.

It was after an accident that the idea was born. In 2009, to develop the capacities of the geothermal power station installed on Krafla since 1977, a borehole perforated a pocket of magma at 900 ° C at a depth of 2.1 kilometers.

Challenge

Smoke comes out to the surface, lava rises a few meters in the pipe, the drilling equipment is damaged. Fortunately, no one is injured, and vulcanologists now have a pocket of magma estimated at 500 million cubic meters within drill range.

“This discovery has the potential to be a huge leap in our ability. to understand a lot of different things, ”says Paolo Papale, citing in particular the origin of continents, the dynamics of volcanoes and geothermal systems.

The accident also shows great promise for Landsvirkjun, the national electricity company that operates the site.

Kilometers underground, the rock reaches temperatures so extreme that the fluids encountered are said to be “Supercritical”, that is to say with intermediate behavior between the liquid and gaseous state.

The energy produced is five to ten times greater than in a conventional well. In the 2009 accident, steam rising to the surface reached an unprecedented 450 ° C.

Two supercritical wells would thus be enough to reach the power of 60 megawatts that the power station currently generates with … 18 conventional wells.

“Thanks to the project, we want to develop new technology to be able to drill deeper and exploit this energy that has never been before ”, ambitions Vordís Eiríksdóttir, executive director of geothermal operations at Landsvirkjun.

Drilling in such an extreme environment is a technical challenge: the materials must be adapted for resist corrosion from super hot steam.

The possibility of the operation triggering a volcanic eruption is a “natural concern” according to John Eichelberger, professor emeritus of geology and geophysics at the University of 'Alaska, but according to him it is equivalent to “pricking an elephant with a needle”.

“A dozen holes have touched magma in three different places (in the world, note) and nothing serious is wrong happened uit ”, he pleads.

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