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Can volcanoes power the world in the future?

by DrPrem Jagyasi

Currently there is a race going on among renewable energy advocates to conceptualize the next big source of renewable energy to power the world when oil well and reservoirs of natural gas run dry. There are currently a few decent options, which although generate energy in its cleanest form, but are dependent on climatic conditions, such as sunshine and strong winds, to produce any energy. Quite obviously, such systems cannot be relied upon in a world that needs energy 24X7 and panics on even the slightest disruption. As an answer to the unpredictable nature of solar and wind generated power, scientists are now trying to capture Mother Nature’s wildest weapon – an active volcano, into a source of clean, abundant and cheap energy.

As one might expect, volcanic magma isn’t something that can be handled or controlled by anybody. The superheated rock with temperate in excess of a 1000 degrees can ruin even the most sophisticated instruments and machinery in a matter of seconds. However, the high temperature is something that the scientists are interested in, as these temperatures can convert water into superheated steam, which packs a lot of energy generating potential.

volcanic magma

How was the energy generating potential of volcanoes discovered?

We all know about hot springs and geothermal energy, which relies on the same source of heat, albeit, on a smaller scale that molten rock. Contrary to the common perception, the energy generating prospect of volcanoes came to be known by way of a couple of accidents, the most recent one being at the Icelandic Deep Drilling Project in the year 2009. The team at IDDP was drilling shafts up to 5km in depth in an effort to reach the heat in the volcanic bedrock below the surface. However, before reaching the targeted depth, the team accidently drilled into a pocket of magma, which then intruded into the upper layers of the crust at a temperature of about 1000 degrees Celsius.

Without worrying about the instruments the team had completely lost owing to the miscalculation, the team immediately focused on the energy generating potential of this molten rock. All the team had to do was create a steel casing with a perforated section at the lower end, which was near the magma. As heat continued to add up in the well, superheated steam continued to flow through it for two years, creating high pressure steam at record temperatures of over 450 degrees Celsius. This magma heated steam generated up to 36MW of power. Although the energy output isn’t something that called for celebrations, it definitely proved that volcanoes can in fact be used to produce clean energy.

volcanoes power (1)

Current Prospects:

Recognizing the need for renewable energy at the earliest, the Department of Energy in the United States and internet giant Google have already funded Seattle’s AltaRock Energy to develop a pilot project that can make use of a dormant volcano in Central Oregon to produce clean power. The $43 million funding will allow the company to dig wells and inject 24 million gallons of water into the side of the volcano to produce superheated steam, which can then be used to produce usable electricity.

Volcano

Concerns:

Although the entire idea of generating power from active and dormant volcanoes seems ingenious, the potential hasn’t been completely tested and hence, the idea is surrounded by skepticism. There is a wide range of critics who believe that the energy output won’t be worth the trouble as the IDDP never managed to produce a decent output. Moreover, others believe that playing with nature, which means injecting millions of gallons of water into wells dug next to an active volcano, might cause earthquakes as water turns into superheated steam and expands. Moreover, since such plants can only be setup in vicinity of volcanoes, the idea to convert the ingenious option into a globally accepted power generation prospect, is completely out of the books.

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