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

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown


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

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    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...


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...


Exciting news for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike – the…


A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…


Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…


Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…


Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…


The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…


Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…


With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…


Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…


The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…


Most plants thicken their leaves in response to higher carbon…


Not just the preserve of flatulent cows, methane is causing…


As the United States’ Supreme Court delays a landmark climate…


Of Britain's 15 national parks, the New Forest is probably…


The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…


Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away


Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…


Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…


A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…


The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…