A daring project to drill a tunnel into the heart of an active volcano is underway—but could risk sparking a huge eruption, scientists have warned.
An international team of researchers are planning to dig a hole 1.2 miles deep into the molten rock of the Krafla volcano in northeastern Iceland.
They aren't looking for ancient treasure like in Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Center of the Earth', however.
The hope is to build the world's first ever 'magma observatory', where they can observe molten rock as hot as 1,300 degrees celsius deep underground for the first time.
The research team believe they might find a new energy source and even develop an early warning system for eruptions around the world.
The $100 million Krafla Magma Testbed project will begin drilling in 2024.
The team behind the project believe it could lead to huge discoveries in terms of energy production—but it could be risky business, as a rogue bit of drilling could accidentally trigger a new eruption.
An eruption is something "one would naturally worry about," said John Eichelberger, one of the founders of the project. But he says it is like "poking an elephant with a needle".
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Eichelberger added: "In total, a dozen holes have hit magma at three different places (in the world) and nothing bad happened."
The project found its beginnings in 2009 when an energy company accidentally drilled into a shallow pocket of magma. Although the drill was damaged, no eruption happened and nobody was hurt.
Magma, which is underground lava, is usually at least 2.7 miles underground.
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However, the shallow depth of the magma discovered by the power company was jumped on by scientists and volcanologists as an opportunity to get up close and personal with the inside of a volcano.
"We have never observed underground magma, apart from fortuitous encounters while drilling at volcanoes in Hawaii, Kenya, and Krafla," Paolo Papale, an Italian volcanologist told AFP.
Vordis Eiriksdottir, the head of geothermal operations at the power company, hopes it will lead to "new technology to be able to drill deeper and to be able to harness this energy that we have not been able to do before."
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Magma produces huge amounts of volcanic steam at 450C, which could create five to ten times more energy than a normal geothermal plant.
The magma observatory project is unlikely to attract any supervillains at this stage—although it's not hard to imagine the likes of Jeff Bezos being interested in a volcano lair.
Iceland has almost 100% renewable energy thanks to its geothermal power plants, which harness volcano power to make clean and cheap electricity.
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The country has so much electricity that it even plans to export power to the UK using a giant cable under the sea.
Iceland is also the original setting of 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'.
Written by Jules Verne, the story sees explorers venture into the dark heart of the country's Snæfellsjökull, an inactive volcano and popular tourist attraction.
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