Let's pour tons of water into an active volcano to generate power

Chalk this up under things that sort of seem like terrible ideas: geothermal energy developers are planning to pump millions of gallons of water into an active volcano in Oregon to see if they can somehow generate electricity without angering the gods.

You may not realize that most of the western United States is covered with active volcanoes. This is "active" in a geologic sense, since with a few notable exceptions, nothing much has been going on for hundreds or thousands of years. But just because a volcano hasn't blown up recently doesn't mean that it's not stuffed to the brim with magma, a fact that Iceland has been relying on to produce more geothermal power than it knows what to do with.

For cost-effective geothermal power, you need three things: a source of heat (like a volcano), a source of water (to transfer that heat to the surface where it can be turned into electricity), and a way to get the water down to the heat and back up again.

In Iceland, they pump water through existing fractures in the rocks around volcanoes, but around here (in Oregon), the rock just isn't fractured enough. What this test project will try to do is to pump 24 million gallons water down a drill pipe into the side of Newberry Volcano in central Oregon, where the hope is that the cold water will be able to fracture the hot volcanic rocks on contact. Over time, enough fractures will open up to allow for the creation of a huge reservoir of water that is continually being heated up by the volcano between 6,000 and 11,000 feet below the Earth, and if it goes well, all that hot water could be cycled back up to the surface to drive a generator.

A 2008 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that the western United States has the potential to produce half of the electricity that the country needs, as long as we can find a good way of opening up the rocks around hot spots to let water in and out. There's some risk involved, like the potential for earthquakes, but if this Oregon test project is a success, it could be a huge new resource for cost effective and eco-friendly power.

BLM, via AP

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