Iceland's Fimmvorduhals volcano erupts. Image: Henrik Thorburn http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fimmvorduhals_2010_03_27_dawn.jpgEnlarge Photo
Although claims of imminent volcanic eruption are likely exaggerated, any eruption of what's known as the Yellowstone Supervolcano would cause global chaos.
Through intense monitoring programs, scientists have a clear idea of the Yellowstone volcano's behavior.
Now NASA scientists are exploring a radical idea that could one day neutralize the threat of eruption altogether.
The agency proposed a theoretical initiative to gradually cool the supervolcano and extract its heat, not only to reduce the threat of a cataclysmic eruption but also to produce geothermal energy in the process.
Scientists believe reducing the heat of the volcano's magma chamber by 35 percent would stop any major threat for good.
The proposed process involves water injections, according to the BBC. The plan calls for drilling 6 miles deep into the volcano to pump water down into it at high pressure.
Arenal volcano, Costa Rica, by Flickr user Adam Baker (Used under CC License)Enlarge Photo
The heated water would be pumped out, at a temperature around 350 degrees C (662 degrees F) and used to generate electricity, at an estimated price tag of $3.5 billion.
It's a sizable investment, but the geothermal energy possibilities may pay it forward, according to the report.
The volcano currently spews 6 gigawatts worth of heat and drilling into the rocky formation could effectively create a massive geothermal energy plant.
Brian Wilcox of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the electric power generated would come at a competitive price, around $0.10 per kilowatt hour.
"You would have to give the geothermal companies incentives to drill somewhat deeper and use hotter water than they usually would," he told the BBC.
"But you would pay back your initial investment, and get electricity which can power the surrounding area for a period of potentially tens of thousands of years."
Icelandic Steam Vents
Icelandic Steam VentsEnlarge Photo
The process has its own risks, such as triggering the eruption scientists seek to avoid, but to counter the risk, drilling could start at the lower sides of the volcano to avoid harming the more sensitive portions.
Additionally, the process would occur at a slow, steady pace.
It could take thousands of years before the threat is eliminated, but the geothermal energy production would be an immediate and continuing benefit.
If scientists work out a feasible plan, the procedure could work for every supervolcano on the planet.
With patience, perhaps a budding clean-energy source awaits deep under the surface of the earth.
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