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Can ‘Dragon Water’ Power the Planet With Renewable Energy?

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Can ‘Dragon Water’ Power the Planet With Renewable Energy?

An ambitious project is being launched to drill deep into the Earth’s crust to harness super-heated “dragon water” that would generate massive quantities of renewable energy.

Unlimited renewable power lies below geothermal regions like this one in Iceland. Photo credit: Milan Nykodym / Flickr

Unlike traditional geothermal heat, which exploits hot rocks to produce steam for turbines, this project goes far deeper—to where the pressure and temperature are huge but the potential benefits are 10 times as great.

There is an infinite amount of energy beneath the Earth’s crust. The problem is the technology to harness it.

The European Union (EU) believes that deep drilling techniques developed by the oil industry can be adapted to extract the energy. It has earmarked €15.6 million (about $17 million) for a project in which potentially the world’s most energy-rich geothermal well will be drilled at Larderello in Tuscany, Italy.

Formidable Challenge

The technical challenges are formidable because of the intense heat and pressure that will turn steel brittle and wreck electrical equipment, so the plan is to develop engineering tools that can withstand the conditions.

Iceland, which already exploits traditional geothermal energy successfully, has tried and failed to harness super-heated rock. But it has not given up, and a second attempt is being planned.

The EU believes using oil company expertise in drilling deep wells will be the key to success.

At a depth of between two to three kilometers, the conditions change dramatically and the drillers will encounter what has been called “dragon water.” No one has previously managed to control the forces unleashed in a well under such extreme high temperature and pressure conditions.

Roar Nybø, a physicist at SINTEF Petroleum Research, explains:

"One of the major uncertainties is the presence of what we call supercritical fluids.

At depths of two to three kilometers in the Earth’s interior, ambient physical conditions change dramatically. Something very special happens when temperatures reach 374 degrees and the pressure 218 times the air pressure at the surface. We encounter what we call supercritical water.

It isn’t a liquid, and nor is it steam. It occurs in a physical form incorporating both phases, and this means that it takes on entirely new properties. Supercritical water behaves like a powerful acid, and will attack anything—including electronics and drilling equipment. In a TV fantasy series, it would probably be called ‘dragon water.’”

But the dragon water has major advantages too, Nybø says. The fluid can transport from depths up to 10 times more energy than normal water and steam can achieve in a standard geothermal well. It also flows more easily through rock fractures and pores.

If researchers can succeed in controlling the forces involved, without the technology breaking down, then a new and vast source of energy can be tapped anywhere in the world.

Potential Revenues

Another potential advantage is that supercritical water can also transport valuable minerals to the surface in solution. This could provide potential incidental revenues. “The dragon of the deep may thus help us open a real treasure trove,” Nybø says.

The depths to which engineers have to drill to achieve the desired temperatures will vary from country to country, due to variations in the thickness of the Earth’s crust and the geothermal gradient.

In Norway, temperature increases by about 20 degrees per kilometer, while in other parts of the world, this may be as high as 40 degrees per kilometer. The average is about 25 degrees.

Geothermal energy is being developed across the world and has huge potential in every continent. Countries currently leading the way in the generation of electricity from geothermal sources are the U.S., the Philippines, Mexico, Indonesia and Italy.

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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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