Scientists in Iceland want to drill a hole into a magma chamber about a mile underground in an attempt to generate limitless energy.
The Krafla Magma Testbed (KMT) aims to create the world’s first research center above a magma chamber to monitor, sample, and test the molten rock in situ for the first time.
The center, it hopes, could offer unprecedented insights into how volcanoes work and open new avenues for limitless geothermal energy.
“Magma within the Earth is the last unexplored frontier,” KMT’s Hjalti Páll Ingólfsson, told Business Insider.
An accidental discovery
Research into magma chambers is crucial. These pools of molten rock, located in the Earth’s crust, can create volcanoes if they find a way to reach the surface.
But they are fiendishly difficult to locate with surface equipment and hard to track ahead of an eruption.
“We don’t have any direct knowledge of what magma chambers look like, which is crucial in understanding volcanoes of course,” Paolo Papale at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Pisa, who has written on the subject, told New Scientist.
In 2009, scientists identified a potential candidate about 2.5 miles underground near the Krafla in Northern Iceland. So they started drilling.
But about a mile into their descent, their drill got stuck. It’s only later, when it came back up carrying shards of volcanic glass, that they realized what happened. They had accidentally poked their head into a magma chamber.
The scientists managed to make a few measurements, but eventually, the wellhead became too warm to operate, per New Scientist.
They decided to pour cold water into the well to cool it down, releasing black, billowing clouds that destroyed their rigging.
Now, 15 years on, KMT wants to drill into the chamber again — but this time it wants to be able to stay, with the help of a few clever engineering tricks.
Getting to the magma with a glassy rock ‘sock’
Krafla is a perfect site for this type of experiment. The magma there is ancient and gloopy, which means it’s unlikely to create an eruption or flow out of the well when you experiment on it, said Ingólfsson.
Because it’s so close to a volcano, any small tremors triggered by the scientists poking into the chamber are unlikely to make an impact, Jon Gluyas, a professor of Earth sciences at Durham University, told BI.
“If you’re in Iceland, you’re already in an extremely active volcanic region. There’s nothing humans can do which materially will alter that one way or the other,” said Gluyas.
However, standard drilling rigs can’t survive in these conditions.
“It’s bloody hot. And that means the materials you’ll use for drilling are not right to those sorts of temperatures,” said Gluyas.
One big challenge, Ingólfsson said, will be drilling straight into the magma while protecting the equipment.
The solution is fairly simple: freeze the magma solid. Using water, the team aims to freeze the magma ahead of the drill bit. This will create a “sock or a pocket” of frozen glassy rock, similar to the obsidian you can find on Earth, per Ingólfsson.
Once that’s big enough, the drill bit can be removed, creating a small cavity inside the chamber to deposit some monitoring equipment before the glass sock collapses, per Ingólfsson.
This should allow scientists to get an exact temperature reading of the inside of the magma chamber, which has never been done before, according to New Scientist.
“Will it work? That’s definitely a challenge,” said Ingólfsson.
“We think we have the equipment, we have the solutions, but it’s very difficult to test those or get those accurate unless doing it in a real environment,” he said.
Another problem will be keeping the rigging up, a crucial point as KMT wants the boreholes to stay open. The pipes that line the hole need to face extremely high temperatures, as well as acidic environments that can eat at the metal.
“We are working on selecting the right materials and finding out what is the best way to design these things so it will fit and survive,” said Ingólfsson.
We know very little about the insides of volcanoes
If it is successful, KMT could offer a whole slew of new insights into volcanic activity, Gluyas said.
“From a scientific perspective, being able to sample an active magma chamber would give you a whole lot of information, which is normally excruciatingly difficult to obtain,” said Gluyas, who is the president of the Global Geothermal Energy Advancement Association.
After all, most of what we know about volcanoes is what we see on the surface.
But by the time molten rock turns into lava, it has lost a lot of the gas that propelled it up to the surface, so we know very little about magma composition before it erupts.
“I’m sometimes insulting some scientists when I say that basically everything we know about inside of a volcano is kind of a guesstimate — an educated guesstimate of course,” said Ingólfsson.
Sampling and monitoring the magma directly could shed crucial information on what it’s made of, and hopefully help us find ways to track its path underground. The glassy rock created when freezing the magma could also be a gold mine of evidence, as it could contain bubbles encapsulating the precious magmatic gases, per Gluyas.
“There’s loads of fundamental science which will come out of it and there’ll be unexpected bonuses, but there is a practical piece of this, which is better understanding of the way the Earth behaves and therefore better preparedness for potential natural disasters,” said Gluyas.
KMT plans to drill a second hole dedicated to geothermal research.
Ingólfsson expects one well on a magma chamber could be as productive as 10 other wells elsewhere.
Not only is it very hot down there, but the magma also changes the composition of the rock, which KMT believes could make harvesting geothermal energy more efficient.
“The source of geothermal is always the magma and getting closer to magma is obviously a higher efficiency,” said Ingólfsson.
Their research, he said, could inform new ways to collect geothermal energy.
“You have the whole Atlantic ridge offshore. If we combine what we learn in Krafla and with what we know about offshore drilling, then you could foresee, at least as a sci-fi vision, that you could utilize it for abundant or endless energy of the Earth,” he said.
For Gluyas, the technology could be promising, but he questioned whether it is needed at this time.
“If you go anywhere where there’s a well-developed volcanic province, Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia, Italy, the geothermal energy is under-exploited massively. I’m not sure how much more efficient systems would be if drilled into a magma chamber,” he said.
A short time to get a lot of money
KMT hopes to break ground on the first hole into the magma chamber in 2026. But it still has a long road ahead.
Its biggest challenge is collecting the money to build the research center and start drilling the holes. Ingólfsson estimates that KMT will need to raise upward of $100 million from governmental organizations and industry partners.
“We sometimes say that geology has always been setting up the wrong poker table,” said Ingólfsson.
“In space research, you are building telescopes, like for gamma rays, which cost billions of dollars. But in geology, two or 300 million is really expensive,” he said.
But Ingólfsson is confident.
“The likelihood of us achieving something magnificent is very high in our opinion,” he said.