A new power project being done in Iceland is exploring the possibility of using volcanoes to generate power. The Krafla Magma Testbed project hopes to possibly tap the resources of magma which sit several kilometers beneath the crust of the earth in various locations around the globe and use the magma as a source of energy.
While some new stories have referred to the project as a “geothermal project”, those who are working on the volcano power project say that the work being done in Iceland is much different, and not geothermal energy. Professor Yan Lavallee, chair of volcanology and magmatic processes at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Ecological Sciences emphatically says that what the team is trying to do “is not geothermal energy”, and that “It’s the most exciting thing since the moon [landing].”
The project first began after it was discovered that a magma chamber under the Krafla volcano in Northeast Iceland was only 2.1 km under the surface, much closer to the surface than predicted. If a way to extract energy from the hot fluids near the surface of the magma wells was found, it could provide power to many countries where volcanic activity is present, such as Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile, Germany, France, and Italy.
However, such goals still remain a long way off. For the time being, the University of Liverpool is among more than 25 different research and scientific institutions attempting to create the world’s first magma observatory at Krafla.
“The project is pushing us to derive supercritical heat from near magma systems in Iceland,” said executive director of the British Geological Survey, Professor John Ludden.
“There is a more scientifically challenging part, which is to drill into magma to learn how to control eruptions and apply the results in places such as Naples or Mexico.”
British Geological Survey is functioning as joint coordinator of the Krafla project, along with Iceland’s Geothermal Research Group.
The magma found at Krafla is at a temperature above 1562 °F (850 °C), meaning the fluids surrounding it, which could provide the supercritical heat to be used for energy production, are around 1112 °F (600 °C). If able to be utilized, this would deliver between five to ten times more energy than traditional geothermal plants.
Given the complexity involved in obtaining these superheated fluids, which are still not fully understood, the projected funds needed for the project are not unreasonable. The first phase of the project, exploring the mechanism of eruptions, could be underway by 2020 at a cost of $30 million. Creating a magma observatory could cost around $100 million upfront, and then another $10 million a year for operations.
If all goes well and magma based energy is feasible, said Ludden: “One could imagine 2 to 5 gigawatts coming to the U.K.” A gigawatt of power can run 700,000 average homes.