Volcanic Magma Could Provide Geothermal Energy

magma

Iceland, land of unpredictable (and unpronounceable) volcanoes, has long used hot water and steam produced by volcanic rocks to heat its homes. But now the country may have a new energy resource: magma, or underground lava.

In 2009, a team of researchers drilling a 15,000-foot-deep geothermal well in Iceland's Krafla volcano stumbled upon magma, which was flowing into the well at a depth of 6,900 feet—only the second time magma has slipped into a geothermal well during drilling.

The incident forced the scientists to quit drilling. And that's when they figured out that the magma could be used as an energy source. PhysOrg explains:

"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 [a geology professor at UC Riverside] said. He and colleagues estimated that this steam could generate 25 megawatts of electricity if passed through a suitable turbine—enough electricity to power 25,000 to 30,000 homes.

In comparison, most high-temperature geothermal wells only generate five to eight megawatts of electricity.

The researchers' happy accident means that magma can now be used as a geothermal energy source wherever shallow sources of magma are found—both in Iceland and in other places where young volcanic rocks exist. Not sure it's enough upside to living in a region where lava could flow down your block at any time, but it's something.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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