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Earth Science

Drilling Hits an Active Magma Chamber In Hawaii 251

Posted by timothy
from the time-for-a-lava-luau dept.
Smivs writes "The BBC are reporting 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 meters before solidifying, making it perfectly safe to study. Magma specialist Bruce Marsh says it will allow scientists to observe directly how granites are made. 'This is unprecedented; this is the first time a magma has been found in its natural habitat,' the Johns Hopkins University professor told BBC News. '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 is hoped the site can now become a laboratory, with a series of cores drilled around the chamber to better characterise the crystallisation changes occurring in the rock as it loses temperature."
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Drilling Hits an Active Magma Chamber In Hawaii

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  • Hot Drill Bit (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JamJam (785046) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:07PM (#26150071)
    I wonder if the magma melted the drill bit?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by von_rick (944421)

      I think they must've used a pile driver and not a traditional drill.

      Molten rock pushed back up the borehole

      If it was rotary drill, it would have occupied the volume of the borehole.

      But knowing very little about geological drilling, I admit that I could be entirely wrong in my reasoning

      • Re:Hot Drill Bit (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Endo13 (1000782) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:56PM (#26150715)

        I'm fairly certain you're wrong in your reasoning, but I also am not an expert on the subject so I could be wrong as well.

        However, first thing is the material that has to be removed as they drill. They would probably need some kind of rotary drill for this. Also, I can tell you from experience drilling other types of things (such as wood and concrete) that a rotary drill will never entirely occupy the volume of the borehole - there's always some slop that happens as you drill, and some space beside the drill bit. The other thing you may not have considered is that the magma could have forced a rotary drill up the borehole.

        • by lymond01 (314120) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:21PM (#26151031)

          I'm fairly certain you're wrong in your reasoning, but I also am not an expert on the subject so I could be wrong as well.

          You're an old hand here at Slashdot, aren't you. ;-)

          • by Endo13 (1000782)

            You're an old hand here at Slashdot, aren't you. ;-)

            *points other direction*

            Look, ponies!!

      • Re:Hot Drill Bit (Score:4, Informative)

        by syncrotic (828809) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:36PM (#26151211)

        You're picturing a drill bit like you'd find on the end of your drill at home, with grooves running all the way up the bit that transport the cuttings to the surface. In rock drilling there's a bit at the bottom of the hole(either percussive or rotary), connected to the drill rig by a pipe of smaller diameter than the bit. Cuttings are forced up through the space between the drill pipe and the wall of the borehole by either high pressure air or water.

      • by fizzup (788545) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:44PM (#26151361)

        I have worked in economic geology as a summer student when I was at university, and I can vouch for the fact that hollow rotary drills are in common use. The drill core (the part of the rock that goes in the hollow centre) is the whole purpose of drilling the hole in the earth.

        The drill is a gasoline or diesel engine, and the drill bit is a piecewise continuous long hollow tube. The drill bit is quite short, and the business end is a ring of industrial diamonds. The whole tube spins, and water is used to carry away the cuttings. To remove the core, the whole nine yards gets pulled up, and the drill core comes with it. The drill core is put in boxes, with depth markings on it.

        The last (optional) step is for the drill operator to piss on the drill core. When the geologist opens the box of drill core, the first thing he does is lick the rock, because you can see the colour variations in wet rock a lot easier than in dry rock.

        It seems to me that if you drilled into some magma with one of these diamond drills, you would run the risk of the whole earth collapsing like a balloon thththpththpthpthpthtpp. :)

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by jfeldredge (1008563)

          The last (optional) step is for the drill operator to piss on the drill core. When the geologist opens the box of drill core, the first thing he does is lick the rock, because you can see the colour variations in wet rock a lot easier than in dry rock.

          And then the geologist says, "Someone's been eating asparagus!"

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mikael (484)

      The hole was 2.5km deep. Drill bits are rotational, so the friction with the rocks causes them to reach temperatures above 700 Fahrenheit. Thus they need to be kept cool using liquid coolant. From the article, the magma entered the drill hole, but cooled down after rising a good number of metres before solidifying.

      National Driller [nationaldriller.com]

      • Re:Hot Drill Bit (Score:5, Interesting)

        by darrenbjohnson (870900) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @08:04PM (#26152985)
        2.5 Km isn't all that deep for a drill. I've spent more time then I would like to admit on a LF230 Rig and depending on the rod size they can go a lot deeper. I imagine the drilling went something like this: So you are drilling down, maintaining torque and rodfeed, all of a sudden you hit a void (this case magma pocket) and your torque drops off to zero your rodfeed hits zero resistance. So you stop the rods slowly, you don't want a twist off in a void. You turn up your mud, you notice that there is some serious pressure in your rods, you pull the rods up 20 or so feet. By this time your core barrel is filled with magma and melting, but it's in a nice wet mud casing cooling it. You then notice the pressure wont drop cause your drill shoe is solid rock. You turn off the mud, look over at your helper, grin and say it's gonna be a fun night. You then proceed to remove all 2.5km of rods from the whole, a big pain in the ass. The whole trip out is wet as the mud has nowhere to go but out of where you disconnect them every 40 feet or so, the drilling helper and hopefully the drill op is soaked in mud. They finally get to the last 10 ft rod, look down the rod at a giant tube of rock, the helper runs out of the rig, the operator starts throwing stuff. Nothing amazing, a 2 or 3 in diameter tube of cooled magma sits in your rod. You just ruined $50K+ worth of stuff depending on the rods, the bit, the core barrel, and etc. You then proceed to wait for the foreman to come and laugh at you.
    • by MarkRose (820682)
      I sure hope so! We don't need another Balrog in a hoolahoop roaming the world! :D
    • Does anyone else feel that "Perfectly Safe" needed quotation marks or an asterisk or something?
  • They found it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Lord Apathy (584315)

    Well they found it. Seems to me this would be the best source of geothermal they could hope for. If they could just keep it from plugging up the bore hole.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by GreenCow (201973)

      well if they had some space age, heat resistant pipes to shove down there into the magma, then run some liquid through the pipes to transmit the heat to a steamer, we'd have delicious vegetables in no time. i mean geothermal power. large scale geothermal.

      it'd be pricey to make the first one, but it could be a big player in renewable energy. and unlike solar panels and wind mills which are like socialized energy because everyone controls the production, this could be a major central project for a greedy corp

      • by MikeUW (999162) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:43PM (#26150559)

        I believe those pipes would need to be made from an alloy known as 'unobtainium'.

        • I believe those pipes would need to be made from an alloy known as 'unobtainium'.

          Isn't that an alloy of jumbonium and raritanium?

        • by schwit1 (797399)
          balonium might also work.
          • by hairyfeet (841228)
            Or in a pinch the could use Governmentium [astahost.com] which is so dense I doubt even the heat of Magma would be able to move it. And of course as a nice bonus if they blow all their money they can then use the Governmentium to bail themselves out. It's a win/win!
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by evanbd (210358)

          You mean like copper? Regeneratively cooled rocket engines use copper chambers quite commonly, in an environment far harsher. As long as the cold side has enough coolant flow, the whole chamber (or in this case pipe) stays cool. There's a boundary layer of cooler gas or rock between the copper and the hot stuff that is where most of the temperature difference lies.

          For efficiency in a generator, though, you want the highest fluid temperature you can get. Copper would limit the temperature, so you'd proba

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Thelasko (1196535)

          well if they had some space age, heat resistant pipes to shove down there into the magma, then run some liquid through the pipes to transmit the heat to a steamer

          I believe those pipes would need to be made from an alloy known as 'unobtainium'.

          Hold a lighter up to the bottom of a plastic water bottle. No, it won't melt. The water keeps it cool. As long as those pipes are always filled with water they won't melt.

          Just about every method we use for creating steam uses this concept, from locomotive boilers, to hot water heaters, to the kettle on your stove. Just make sure they don't run dry, or bad things will happen. [wikipedia.org]

        • Re:They found it (Score:4, Informative)

          by The Fun Guy (21791) on Thursday December 18, 2008 @11:05AM (#26159913) Homepage Journal

          'unobtainium'

          What a disappointment. If only there were some kind of material [scienceblog.com] that could withstand the 1200C of near-surface magma, or some means of rapidly extracting the heat [hoval.co.uk] so we could use it for generating electricity.

          Unfortunately, there's no economic incentive [geo-energy.org] to develop these technologies.

      • by D Ninja (825055)

        then before you know it they drill to deep and there's a balrog running the streets.

        I preferred Blanka. Or Sagat. Balrog was just an old, washed-up boxer who was easy to beat if you knew to keep your attacks below his belt.

    • by frieko (855745)
      Magma's not hot enough to melt steel or titanium. I've always wondered why laying pipe near/inside volcanoes couldn't solve all our energy needs. I'm sure it's not easy, but it seems easier than, say, putting a man on the moon.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by evilad (87480)

        You might not get as much heat conducted into that pipe as you'd hope. Magma has a finite thermal conductivity. More so after it's cooled to the point of solidification.

      • Again, absolutely zero knowledge of, well, anything involved here, but I assume it would be a bad idea to lay pipes anywhere with high levels of tectonic activity?

      • by barzok (26681) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:21PM (#26151025)

        Every time I try to lay pipe near/inside volcanoes, she tells me "not tonight, I have a headache."

      • by lgw (121541)

        Geothermal doesn't scale. The total heat loss through the crust of the Earth over an area the size of America is only about equal to our current electriciy use. Given that solar enery per square yard is about 10,000 times geothermal energy per square yard, it doesn't make much sense to focus on geothermal (except in those rare spots where geothermal is just handy).

    • by 19thNervousBreakdown (768619) <davec-slashdot&lepertheory,net> on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:19PM (#26150989) Homepage

      No shit, I'm wondering how exactly it was "inadvertent" to drill into liquid hot mag-ma when you're drilling toward the hottest thing you can find on a volcanic island.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Fluffeh (1273756)
      Not quite the best source of geothermal. You see these sort of bubbles of magma aren't really truly connected to the lower greater heat sources. It was most likely formed due to one of the eruptions from the 50's or 60's (From TFA) and therefore isn't going to keep the same level of heat. The article even says that they want to study it as it cools.

      For a proper geothermal energy supply you want to drill down to the real stuff, not a random bubble up close that you found by luck that might be there for fo
      • Re:They found it (Score:5, Informative)

        by afidel (530433) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @06:22PM (#26151917)
        We simply don't have anywhere near the technology to harness this sort of heat into energy.

        Like hell we don't, molten salt solar plants use salts that boil at 1400C and magma only reaches about 1300C max, the solidified area that would form around the pipe would lower the delta T to well below what such a system could handle.
  • Perfectly safe? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by truckaxle (883149) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:10PM (#26150121) Homepage
    Molten rock pushed back up the borehole several meters before solidifying, making it perfectly safe to study

    When dealing with a pressurized body of molten rock with entrained gasses, I don't think one could ever say it is perfectly safe.
    • "[...] [D]rillers looking for geothermal energy in Hawaii have inadvertently put a well right into a magma chamber. Molten rock pushed back up the borehole several meters before solidifying, making it perfectly safe to study." Futurama anyone? Or "LOST"?
    • by MollyB (162595) *

      Good point. Let us not forget that they plan to dig 'many' holes into the chamber. I can envision the whole area collapsing into the chamber for lack of support. A giant game of "tear on the dotted line", so to speak.

      • by SatanicPuppy (611928) * <Satanicpuppy&gmail,com> on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:15PM (#26150955) Journal

        Not sure that would be an issue. Magma is pretty dense, so it's not like a huge chunk of rock would just displace into it in the same way as if it were water. Depending on the density of the rock above, it might even float on the magma.

        It's also pretty close to the surface (obviously) so there isn't (apparently) enough weight on it to produce the pressure needed to remove some of that magma and create a void for the land to fall into.

        It also appears to be self-sealing, which is also good for safety.

        For a hellish molten holocaust waiting to happen, it seems pretty benign.

    • by Fastolfe (1470) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:41PM (#26150531)

      If it were truly under a dangerous amount of pressure, wouldn't this borehole have become another volcano? The fact that it traveled only a short distance before solidifying suggests the pressure isn't a concern.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:42PM (#26150543)

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

      I'm sure they're leaving out their initial observations which probably went something like: "OH FUCK!! RUN! ok.. i think it stopped.. let's change our underwear then we'll send the new guy over to check it out"

      • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:30PM (#26151147) Homepage

        I'm sure they're leaving out their initial observations which probably went something like: "OH FUCK!! RUN! ok.. i think it stopped.. let's change our underwear then we'll send the new guy over to check it out"

        "Oh yes, of course it's perfectly safe, Ensign Burke. Nothing to worry about. Now go on over there and examine the bore hole. Oh but first put on this official red shirt signifying your position on our team."

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Thelasko (1196535)
      This whole thing makes me wonder if they are in fact dealing with lava and not magma (yes, there is a difference). Lava is known to form lava tubes, [wikipedia.org] which could be mistaken for magma. Hey, I'm no geologist, I'm just saying... how are they so sure?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by tehcyder (746570)

        Hey, I'm no geologist, I'm just saying... how are they so sure?

        Because they're geologists?

  • by tomknight (190939) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:10PM (#26150147) Homepage Journal
    Dammit, I read "..active manga chamber...". Confused, yes.
    • Which is funny - I also misread what you said, thinking "what's wrong with 'active magma chamber'?" So I re-read it... and then I re-read it again slowly... "Oh. Manga."

  • by xleeko (551231) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:11PM (#26150155)

    All that I can picture is the classic 19th century drill tower with glowing magma spraying from the top, and lava-coated workmen running around cheering "It's a gusher!!"

    Actually, in my mind, the workmen look a lot like Homer Simpson ...

  • by El Yanqui (1111145) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:13PM (#26150173) Homepage
    "It has been described as a geologist's dream"

    Dare to dream, geologists. Dare to dream.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      A man goes into a restaurant, sits down and starts reading the menu. The menu says:

      Broiled Accountant $5.95 per plate
      Fried Engineer $7.95 per plate
      Toasted Teacher $7.95 per plate
      Grilled Geologist $25.95 per plate

      The man calls a waiter over and asks "Hey, why does the Grilled Geologist cost so much more?"

      The waiter says, " Are you kidding? Do you know how hard it is to clean one of them?!?!"

      What a lode of fuchsite.

    • Normal Person: Holy crap, we just created a vent for magma to escape!
      Scientist: Ooh, we haven't studied this before!
      I love it. Oh, and obligatory XKCD comic [xkcd.com].

    • by Repton (60818)

      Yeah, I dream of that all the time. Drilling deep ... a moment on the threshold ... then suddenly, a mighty eruption.

      ...

      ...excuse me for a moment.

  • Convection schmonvection. [tvtropes.org] I've finally found the perfect place to plot my evil deeds!
  • by TheHawke (237817) <{rchapin} {at} {pelicancoast.net}> on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:14PM (#26150197)

    When his gauges pegged at the upper limits and his torquemeter went to zero when he breached the wall of the chamber.

  • by east coast (590680) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:22PM (#26150285)
    If you have a glass of magma, and I have a glass of magma and I have a straw. And let's say my straw and it reaches across the room and into your magma. I drink your magma. I DRINK IT UP!
  • by Maddog Batty (112434) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:22PM (#26150295) Homepage

    I would love to know why it was kept quiet for so long.

    "The breakthrough was made in 2005. Only now are researchers confident enough about their work to discuss the details publicly."

    So what were they not confident about? Hot temperatures - check. No drill bit left - check. Rock fused to end of drill - check.

  • was the project leader called Mierin by any chance?
  • by Psychotria (953670) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:26PM (#26150349)

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

    Is this professor also known as David Attenborough?

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

      Is this professor also known as David Attenborough?

      Possibly, but that quote makes me wonder whether my local Zoo is home to a nest of magma?

  • by Yossarian45793 (617611) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:29PM (#26150401)

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

    I don't think that phrase means what you think it means...

  • Ooops (Score:4, Funny)

    by electrictroy (912290) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:43PM (#26150561)

    Dear Boss:

    We had a tragic accident today. We were drilling for heat - well the good news is we found it. Lots of it. The bad news is that we destroyed a $50,000 drill bit and pipe.

    Please don't fire me.

    No pun intended.

    Your faithful employee, and gracious servant, who hopes you will come to my home for Christmas dinner. Or any other dinner you desire...
    John Doe

  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:48PM (#26150599)

    Drill, baby, dr--AAAAUGH! It burns!

  • Not granite... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @04:51PM (#26150625)

    "Magma specialist Bruce Marsh says it will allow scientists to observe directly how granites are made."

    No, because the magma in Hawaii is mafic in composition, yielding basaltic [wikipedia.org] or gabbroic [wikipedia.org]) rocks, not felsic like granites [wikipedia.org]. Maybe they mean being able to observe intrusive processes like the ones that produce granite?

    • Re:Not granite... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by lmckayjo (532783) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:33PM (#26151187)

      Read the article. This magma chamber is NOT apparently basaltic, and has much in common with magmas that produce granite. 67% silica content - which is very uncommon to see in anything on the surface here in Hawaii.

      That said, the important thing isn't probably going to be understanding how volcanoes in other parts of the world work, but just in how this volcano works. That won't get as much funding as studying "how continents originally formed" or other highly derived hypotheses that this site might generate, so the geologists are focusing on what sounds good to people OTHER than Hawaiians (who are generally against messin' with da aina anyway).

      -L

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by DogFacedJo (949100)

      Yeah, see, that's what is apparently interesting about this magma - it *is* felsic, in Hawaii, the middle of the bloody Pacific.

    • Re:Not granite... (Score:5, Informative)

      by jolyonr (560227) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @06:46PM (#26152199) Homepage

      I know this is Slashdot, but perhaps you should read the full article. The magma encountered was unusually high in silica (ie felsic) - a dacite-type lava. They are excited about this because it is showing how granitic continental-style magma can differentiate from your normal basaltic lava.

      So yes, it would potentially be granitic rather than gabbroic in nature. Isn't geology fun!

      The same thing happens in Iceland too, there are dacite-type and rhyolitic-type lava flows, although a far lower percentage than the normal basaltic flows. Silica-rich lava is a much nastier stuff when it gets to the surface, explosive, but more viscous and less runny than your basaltic lava. That's why you didn't get a geyser of molten-hot lava coming up the tubes [slight simplification, but hey, this is slashdot].

      Jolyon

  • Some ppl claim that they are not, but they are all still active. Some are just deeper.
    • Every place on earth is geologically active if you dig deep enough...

  • Seems like Dr. Evil is going to drill into the "red hot mag-ma" sooner than he thought...
  • by kimvette (919543) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:17PM (#26150967) Homepage Journal

    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.

    I'm sorry, call me naive. However, would any of you here be shocked if you drill into a frigging volcano and discover - gasp - magma?

    I mean, isn't all of Hawaii just a bunch of volcanos? How can anyone be "shocked" to find magma close to the surface of a volcano? Especially geologists? Like, isn't geology their field? Doesn't it stand to reason that a volcano, you know, a mountain made of lava flows, lava which when underground is called magma, just might -- might -- have magma relatively close to the surface?

    • by natet (158905)
      Actually, I would expect to encounter pockets of super heated gasses riding on top of the magma. I think the point here is that they can punch more holes in and study the magma, which it wouldn't really be safe to do in the crater.
  • by fzimper (201054) on Wednesday December 17, 2008 @05:22PM (#26151047) Homepage

    In the German city of Staufen, they drilled some 140m deep holes to get geothermal energy for heating the town hall and adjacent buildings.

    Unfortunately, this drilling caused many cracks in houses around the city centre. Some of these cracks are said to be big enough that you can put your fingers in.

    According to this article [spiegel.de] on the English Spiegel (a German news magazine) website, dated March 2008, the whole city is sinking. In a recent German article [spiegel.de] from November, they write that the city has risen several centimeters due to water mixing with gypsum deep down and therefore causing the gypsum to expand.

  • by alta (1263)
    Bah, this was a sci-fi made for TV... If I could actually stand to sit there long enough to watch one, I would be able to tell you how it ends. But I do know it contains a lot of screaming, colapsing cities, really bad CGI and Bruce Cambell.
  • by mosb1000 (710161)
    They should try this in Yellowstone National Park [wikipedia.org]. What could possibly go wrong [wikipedia.org]?
  • The volume slide of the audio player on the BBC site goes to 11! Powerpuff girls rule!

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