Drillers accidentally dig into magma chamber in Hawaii

December 17, 2008

(ChattahBox) — It’s now being disclosed that drillers looking for geothermal energy in Hawaii have inadvertently put a well right into a magma chamber.

Molten rock pushed back up the borehole several metres before solidifying, making it perfectly safe to study.

The exploratory well was being put down in the east of Hawaii’s Big Island, through the basalt lava fields formed by Kilauea Volcano.   It could be this is how continents could have been started to be built on the planet. 

The idea was to find steam from waters heated deep underground in fractured rock, to drive turbines on the surface to generate electricity. The company behind the project, Puna Geothermal Venture, has had a successful power operation in the area for 15 years.

But the drillers were shocked – not only to hit magma but to also hit such a big heat source at the relatively shallow depth of 2.5km (about 1.5 miles).

The breakthrough was actually made in 2005, but only now are researchers confident enough about their work to discuss the details publicly.

They are not sure how large the magma chamber is, but some initial testing suggests it may have been put in place by activity from Kilauea in the 1950s, perhaps even the 1920s.

Bill Teplow, a consulting geologist with US Geothermal Inc, who oversaw the drilling, stressed there was no risk of an explosion or of a volcanic eruption at the site.

“It was easily controlled in the well bore because of the magma’s highly viscous nature. It flowed up the well bore 5-10m but then the cool drilling fluid caused it to solidify and stop flowing,” said Mr Teplow.

“At no time were we in danger of losing control of the well.”

This is not the first time drillers have encountered magma; the depth of the hit and the setting are, however, are thought to be unique.

The Kilauea encounter is by far the shallowest and the hottest encounter of rock in a commercial operation, and it will be studied to see if there are lessons that can be applied to electrical generation project elsewhere in the world.

Magma specialist Bruce Marsh says it will allow scientists to observe directly how granites are made. The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, professor told BBC News:

“This is unprecedented; this is the first time a magma has been found in its natural habitat.”

“Before, all we had to deal with were lava flows; but they are the end of a magma’s life. They’re lying there on the surface, they’ve de-gassed. It’s not the natural habitat. It’s the difference between looking at dinosaur bones in a museum and seeing a real, living dinosaur roaming out in the field.”


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