Ultra-deep Power Plants

In a sea of challenges and proposals about energy, why do we seem to neglect the hot earth under our feet?

For instance, the geothermal energy potential in western Canada exceeds all of Canada’s oil and gas reserves.

You can say Canada’s geothermal potential has never been developed.

An event at the University of Calgary March 28th, 2008 will discuss hydro-geological power plants. Organizers are hoping this meeting might restart policies that have been asleep since the 1980s.

In the 1970s, the DoD looked at special steels for use in drill bits that could endure more than 400°C for geothermal wells as ‘shallow’ as 35-40,000 feet where temperatures exceed 260°C.

Sandia Labs and other hi-tech researchers are serious about deep drilling. In a proposal from Harvard, down-hole lasers might melt rock in pulses of “subsurface explosive boiling”.

Site of the Kola Superdeep BoreholeThe deepest hole ever created lies beneath this tower on a thinly-crusted sub-Arctic shelf near Finland.

From 1962 until 1994, Russia drilled Kolskaya SG-3, the Kola Peninsula Superdeep Borehole [wiki] to 12km / 7.6miles, but after 30 years they didn’t reach the hot magma at 30 miles deep. The softer heated rock could not be penetrated by a rotating steel drill bit because the plastic rock flowed closed before it could be chilled with refrigerants!

Incidentally, maybe the Bible correctly states that water can indeed come from rock because the Russians found water-filled crystalline rocks on their way down.

Since this was too deep for free water to reach, researchers think they were formed when incredible pressure squeezed hydrogen and oxygen atoms out of rocks due to the incredible pressure – trapped by layers of impermeable rocks above it.

And of course the Soviet government were using nuclear bombs for possible access to deep resources, but this abstract from 1984 only indicates bombs were used to spread a seismic signal as far as 3,000 miles!

“A large geophysical program of exploration that uses deep seismic sounding has been under way in the Soviet Union for decades. Underground nuclear explosives have been used as strong seismic sources since 1971. By Soviet account, deep seismic sounding has been instrumental in confirming the existence of numerous sedimentary structures containing oil and gas fields in western and eastern Siberia.”

Generally, only mega-corporations such as Petrobras, British Petroleum, Royal Dutch/Shell, ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco are investing in ultra-deep research and development, almost entirely for oil and gas under 10,000 feet of water. Energy ‘interests’ spent $388 million lobbying Congress in 2003, the year Tom DeLay (R-Texas) arranged for zero royalties if wells are started under water that’s merely 700 feet deep!!

A 1989 article at BusinessNet offers several pages of synopsis about our unexplored “inner space” and the progress beyond 7 miles in Russia and Germany. China, Singapore, Norway, among a long list of nations expanding their economic zones into deep waters, are establishing dozens of drilling operations beyond a depth of 30,000 feet – including the ocean above the hole – almost entirely to bring oil or gas to the surface.

Germany used this sophisticated bit to drill 5 miles deep at the 1995 KBT borehole [pdf].

Most of our efforts and funds are directed only at pockets of oil or gas.

The US has a robust but effectively unsupported scientific drilling community. DOSECC (Drilling, Observation and Sampling of the Earths Continental Crust) is a non-profit corporation providing support for subsurface research.

Collaborating in Iceland, some USA researchers are collecting data about the chemistry of corrosive deep waters.

Larger energy firms are also looking at frozen methane deposits deep under oceans, gas hydrates, but many are worried about another industrial cycle releasing huge volumes of carbon gases.

If not already, Iceland’s geothermal investments might soon help it become the most energy efficient nation on earth.

A 2007 Iceland Deep Drilling Project is looking to produce energy from “supercritical geothermal systems” at depths to 5km at 400 to 600°C. Current wells are 2.5 km and generate about 4 to 7 megawatts, but deeper wells with temperatures above 450°C might each generate 40 to 50 MW.

Deep holes that liberate the earth’s heat are attractive options. Why build a nuclear plant to merely produce steam for a turbine? But today’s geothermal power plants use half their capital for well drilling to depths that offer meager power capacity. And no matter how strong the steel, what can drill through flowing plastic rock?

Harvard’s laser might boil enough rock to be effective. MIT is thinking about ‘thermal spallation‘ by supersonic flaking of rock that’s rapidly heated to a high temperature (2300C) using a flame-jet drill. By drilling with “rocket exhaust”, MIT’s Jefferson Tester expects to penetrate granite at 100 feet per hour, ten times greater than conventional drilling.

By now, we should be able to disintegrate rock:

abrasive jet drills; cavitating jet drills; electric arc and plasma drills; electron beam drills; electric disintegration drills; explosive drills; flame jet drills; high pressure jet drills; implosion drills; rocket exhaust drills; spark drills; and thermal-mechanical drills.

Hot water and steam from boreholes can be used to run turbines for electricity. Why not?

Tyler Hamilton of the Toronto Star says, “At a time when we’re scratching our heads on ways to fight climate change, and talking about elaborate plans to build CO2 pipelines and sequester greenhouse gases, you’d think we
‘d go for some low-lying fruit first.”