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

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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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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.