As most of us know, the Earth is hot inside. Due to the huge pressures deep inside our planet, temperatures reached are similar to those on the surface of the sun. You might say that there’s a huge amount of energy just below our feet. Now for the purpose of this discussion we won’t even go that far down, but just a few hundred feet below the surface.
Due to the many tectonic plates that make up the planet’s crust, magma from the Earth’s mantle, more often than not, surfaces in the form of volcanoes. There are many such places all across the planet, with some being more prolific than others. The Ring of Fire is one such example. It’s more or less the coastline that surrounds the Pacific Ocean, and this coastline is littered with volcanoes big and small. Another such place is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Basically a mountain range beneath the ocean, the ridge constantly spews out lava which then cools and pushes the Americas away from Europe and Africa. In parts this underwater mountain range has already surfaced in the form of islands such as the Azores, Ascension, St. Helena, Iceland and many others.
Now, virtually a series of volcanoes, Iceland normally draws much of it’s energy from geothermal plants. A geothermal plant is more or less a regular power plant which boils water to generate steam which in turn runs a series of turbines in order to produce electricity. But instead of using coal or other CO2 producing fuels, a geothermal plant uses the heat of the ground to boil it’s water. Places with high volcanic activity are ideal for these sort of power plants since the ground is much hotter at the surface.
By drilling holes say 10 km. (6 mi.) deep, temperatures can reach anywhere between 70 to 315 degrees Celsius (160-600 F.). Fairly recently Icelanders have dug such a hole and hit a pocket of magma by mistake. This also happened in Hawaii a couple of years earlier, and the Americans poured concrete down the hole to cover it up. This time however, engineers have poured water down the shaft, just to see what happens. To their astonishment, they realized that the steam gushing out was at temperatures of about 450 degrees (842 F.) -a normal geothermal plant uses steam at around 70 degrees (158 F.)-.
Call it a lucky accident, but from a standard plant that produces about 40 MW of power, enough to power around 11,500 homes, this new discovery can increase the energy output tenfold. And since this is a green sort of energy, our planet can now begin to “cool down” a bit.
Drawing energy from lava is still in its testing phase, but its applications and benefits can be used all over the world where we have volcanoes. Just think of Yellowstone Park which is basically one huge volcano. The temperatures and pressures over there are so great that the ground has raised some 90 cm. (35 in.) since 1923. Drawing energy from lava over there can have some huge benefits.