Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Belly of the beast: energy from the earth

Belly of the beast: energy from the earth Shutterstock
01 Apr
Icelandic engineers are attempting to harness the powerful geothermal energy of magma

Imagine for a second that you are magma, minding your own business at around 1,000°C, three to four miles underground. Over the course of the next six months, what begins as a distant scratching becomes a racket, as a drill burrows nearer, stopping before it hits your magma chamber.

That is what has happened to a volcano on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland. Since August 2016, researchers at the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) have been cutting deeper into a volcano than ever before, creating the world’s hottest borehole. In January, the project stopped digging when drill sensors picked up ‘supercritical’ pressures and temperatures at around 430°C. Under such conditions, water has the properties of both a solid and a liquid, but is ten times more powerful than regular steam when it comes to energy generation.

Their success, which the engineers described as a ‘significant milestone in the geothermal industry,’ was an explorative mission collecting core samples and testing temperatures. It is, however, part of an ongoing attempt to use the intense heat energy of magma. ‘If the best outcome is that the well can be used for highly efficient energy production,’ they write, ‘it would open new dimensions in geothermal utilisation.’ In theory, once a well is established, water could be poured in, heated to supercritical levels, and used to generate enough energy to power 50,000 homes.

It’s not the first time engineers have drilled towards magma. In 2009, the IDDP bored two kilometres down into Iceland’s Krafla geothermal field and unexpectedly struck a magma reservoir. At the time, the well was the most powerful ever drilled and was used to create superheated steam until it suffered corrosion problems in 2012. The new Reykjanes borehole breaks the record in depth and for its potential power.

If the project succeeds, it could result in opportunities for other volcanic nations. The team concludes:

If deep supercritical wells, here and elsewhere in the world, can produce more power than conventional geothermal wells, fewer wells would be needed to produce the same power output, leading to less environmental impact and improved economics

This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


It takes a lot more than the latest research data…


NGOs shine a light on the underreporting of wildlife crime…


Pioneering laser photography is being used by scientists on the…


Annual competition looks to celebrate island life in all its…


Increasing interest in offshore aquaculture is dividing environmentalists


Well-meaning promises don’t always have positive outcomes. Marco Magrini finds…


The RSPB introduces a new hotline for reporting the unlawful…


With the death earlier this week of the world’s last…


The essence of street photography is its raw, unfiltered, unstaged…


For Marco Magrini, a tax on fossil fuels would be…


Half of animal species in world’s most biodiverse areas could…


Four-year project to reestablish safe breeding grounds for seabirds on…


First global atlas of soil bacteria reveals a small minority…


Scientists discover how shrubs are dominating the Arctic tundra


War and conservation have a complicated relationship, with two studies…


Why is Europe so cold right now? Marco Magrini suggests…


Threatened Californian owls are suffering from digesting rat poison administered…


With the majority of the ocean still remaining undiscovered, a…


Belize bans offshore oil extraction to protect the second longest…


With their horns still much-prized by poachers, will the revered…