Iceland, already a juggernaut in the world of sustainability, is about to turn up the heat on its geothermal efforts.
Since August, engineers in southwestern Iceland have been slowly drilling into the earth at a geothermal facility nicknamed Thor. The initiative, known the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), aims to tap an underground river of super hot magma more than 3.1 miles under the surface. Once completed, the drilled hole will not only have the distinction of being the hottest on Earth, with temperatures between 750 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, but will also power the world's most powerful geothermal well.
"People have drilled into hard rock at this depth, but never before into a fluid system like this," Albert Albertsson, assistant director at Icelandic geothermal energy company HS Orka, told New Scientist.
The IDDP is hoping the depth and temperature of the well will tap what's known as "supercritical steam," when water exists in a state that is neither liquid or gas but contains more energy than both. According to estimates, a steady flow of supercritical steam would generate up to 50 megawatts of electricity, more than 10 times the current output of conventional geothermal plants.
“If they can get supercritical steam in deep boreholes, that will make an order of magnitude difference to the amount of geothermal energy the wells can produce,” Arnar Guðmundsson of Invest in Iceland added to New Scientist.
Iceland already derives nearly 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, but this latest push could cross a new boundary: supplying Europe with the excess clean energy it generates. One possibility currently being explored would involve the laying of a 750-mile subsea transmission cable from Iceland to Scotland.
"I believe that if these drilling projects are successful, it can change the energy picture in Iceland very dramatically," Dr. Wilfred Elders, co-chief scientist for the IDDP, told CNBC earlier this year. "And it could make a big impact on the supply of electricity in Northern Europe."
Should the Thor geothermal well produce as much energy as expected, the breakthrough could also lead to increased geothermal projects in North America, in particular along the tectonically-active regions of the Pacific Northwest and western U.S.
In October 2015, Elders described in a presentation to the Geological Society of America how tapping into the Juan de Fuca Ridge, a tectonic region located off the coast of Washington state, could power the entire U.S. many times over.
"The amount of heat on the Juan de Fuca Ridge within 1,000 m to 2,000 m of the seabed is enormous," he said. "If just 1 or 2 percent could be converted to electricity, it would be huge."