A Drilling Rig Named Thor is About to Make History

December 15, 2016 | Maggie Romuld



Photo credit: Maggie Romuld

It’s taken sixteen years, but a collaboration between scientists, industry, and the government of Iceland is on the verge of a major milestone.

The Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) was initiated in Japan, in 2000, at the World Geothermal Congress. The primary goal of the project is to investigate the economics and feasibility of extracting energy and chemicals out of hydrothermal systems at “supercritical” conditions.

To do that, the drilling team needs to reach deep into the roots of conventional hydrothermal systems where both temperatures and pressures are enormous, and water is in the form of supercritical steam – neither liquid nor gas.

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According to the IDDP, geo-fluids at supercritical condition have more than five times the power-producing potential of hydrothermal liquid water at 225 degrees Celsius (437 degrees Fahrenheit), and a supercritical well could have ten times the power output of a conventional geothermal well. It is that supercritical steam that the IDDP wants to bring back to the surface to run their turbines and produce electricity.

Asgeir Margeirsson, CEO of the IDDP, told New Scientist that “If this works, in the future we would need to drill fewer wells to produce the same amount of energy, meaning we would touch less surface, which means less environmental impact and hopefully lower costs.”

Iceland is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, and the current drill site is on the Reykjanes peninsula, a landward extension of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary between major tectonic plates.

In that region, geothermal production wells are typically drilled to a depth of 2000 or 3000 meters (1.2 or 1.9 miles). At the beginning of the project, a number of potential sites were identified, and a decision was made to deepen Well RN 17 in Reykjanes. Unfortunately, in 2005, prior to the deepening, the well became blocked during a production test. Attempts to recondition the well failed, and it was abandoned early in 2006.

The IDDP moved from the Reykjanes field to the Krafla high-temperature field in northeast Iceland later that same year, and in 2009, they began to drill what later became known as Well IDDP-1. The well was meant to be completed at 4500 meters (2.8 miles). However, the drilling operation was abruptly terminated at 2100 meters (1.3 miles) when drilling penetrated 900-degree-Celsius (1650-degree-Fahrenheit) magma. Magma reached the surface in the form of rapidly quenched (cooled) obsidian glass, and plugged the lowest 20 meters (66 feet) of the hole. (The well had, however, been extensively tested and was, for awhile, the world’s hottest production well.)

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After Krafla, the IDDP moved its activities back to the Reykjanes field, and in August of this year, they began drilling once again. By November, they had passed a depth of 4200 meters (2.6 miles) at Well IDDP-2, and IDDP recently told BBC News that they should reach 5000 meters (3.1 miles) in the next few weeks.

At the initiation of the IDDP science program in 2001, approximately 60 research proposals were received from the international science community. Even if this project fails to pass the economic feasibility test, it has provided reams of data. Data that will provide a unique view into the inner workings of Earth’s crust. Scientists everywhere are smiling.

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