Could NASA Power US from Yellowstone’s SuperVolcano?

April 27, 2019

I have good news and bad news.

Futurism:

When people think of Yellowstone, it’s usually in relation to the national park, a massive 8,983 square kilometer (3,468.4 square mile) area comprising mountains, rivers, and forests. Less commonly considered is the Yellowstone Caldera, a supervolcano whose eruption could be devastating for our planet.

Thankfully, such an explosion is highly unlikely, and now, NASA has come up with a way to not only ensure that the volcano remains inactive, but also use it to provide the surrounding area with electricity.
Following their release of a story on supervolcanoes, the BBC was contacted by a few NASA members who wanted to share details on a previously unreleased plan to deal with Yellowstone. Even NASA admits their incredibly ambitious plan is risky, but the potential benefits resulting from its success can’t be completely ignored.

First, they would drill into the volcano from the lower sides, outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. Coming from this direction would prevent the intense heat from making its way to the top of the chamber, where it would cause further problems.
Once drilling is complete, water would be pumped into and back out of the supervolcano at high pressures, with the exiting water heated to a temperature of around 350 degrees Celsius (662 degrees Fahrenheit). The water going in would slowly cool the volcano, while the hot water coming out of it could be used to generate electricity.

Yellowstone currently leaks around 6GW in heat,” Brian Wilcox, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explained to the BBC. “Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around $0.10/kWh.”

Aside from the dangers inherent in any plan to drill into a volcano, the NASA proposal is also largely theoretical — no one knows for sure that it would work, and the cost of finding out would be an estimated $3.46 billion. Wilcox doesn’t think this cost is insurmountable, however.
“You would have to give the geothermal companies incentives to drill somewhat deeper and use hotter water than they usually would, 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,” he noted. “And the long-term benefit is that you prevent a future supervolcano eruption which would devastate humanity.”

Even if the system can effectively cool Yellowstone at NASA’s estimated rate of 1 meter (3.2 feet) per year, it would take thousands of years before only cool rock was left and longer than that to actually confirm that the process had permanently eliminated the threat of an eruption.
Despite all of these variables, the plan is worth consideration, especially given that Yellowstone is just one of about 20 supervolcanoes on the planet. NASA hopes that their proposal will encourage more practical discussions and debates on what to do about these massive structures prior to an eruption, at which point the Earth could be thrust into a volcanic winter.

13 Responses to “Could NASA Power US from Yellowstone’s SuperVolcano?”

  1. chucksterweb Says:

    The idea of tapping Yellowstone for geothermal energy is not new. Not by a long shot. If you wanted to tap some of the energy you could do it right on the surface where the heat comes out now. Some of those springs will scald your skin off in seconds. Biggest problem is that the water can be incredibly corrosive. I don’t believe that’s a game changer though.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      right, not a game changer, but perhaps a step toward planetary stewardship – we need to think about the long game including climate change, asteroid defense, and mitigation of geological threats like this – if we expect to be a long term civilization.

    • toddinnorway Says:

      The global geothermal electric power industry started in central Italy in 1911, a site which is still in operation today. Total geothermal electric power generating capacity is about 14 GW, expected to grow to 17 GW by 2023.

      Establishing some geothermal electric power plants at the periphery of Yellowstone would not be revolutionary. It would be well within today’s proven engineering design limits for geothermal energy. But it would require hundreds if not thousands of wells to be drilled, and probably many of them would need to be fracked to some degree, if the wells are drilled mostly in rocks which are not sedimentary in nature.

      But what a thrill it would be to see as much as possible of the drilling industry leave tight oil and work on geothermal instead. Given the right policy nudges and incentives I am sure this could happen.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        The global geothermal electric power industry started in central Italy in 1911, a site which is still in operation today.

        Tangent: There are parts along the Italian coast that are over a near-surface* magma chamber, the geological equivalent of a trampoline, crust-wise. Be on the lookout for deniers who try to use historic “sea level” markers in that area, which they misinterpret to mean global sea level was much higher a few millennia ago.

        _____
        *geologically speaking

  2. jimbills Says:

    The linked Science Alert article is worth reading as well, instead of just the Futurism article, a publication where all technology is super duper cool and always good:
    https://www.sciencealert.com/nasa-has-a-3-5bn-plan-to-save-the-planet-from-the-yellowstone-supervolcano

    Seems a pretty risky plan for one geothermal plant and in which the side benefits are hypothetical.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    Where’s the GOOD news in this piece? This is what happens when you cut funding for NASA—they start cooking up attention-getting schemes to attract $$$ from the greedy rich and their friends in Washington. We need to look for “planetary stewardship” opportunities someplace else besides Yellowstone.

    My head is now spinning as much as when I first read about Solar Roadway, maybe more since this is coming from those I thought were serious people.

    “NASA has come up with a way to….ensure that the volcano remains inactive”. Sounds like Jeffy speaking—-he loves absolutes also.

    “NASA admits their incredibly ambitious plan is risky, but the potential benefits resulting from its success can’t be completely ignored”. ROTFLMAO at that one!

    “…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,” he noted. “And the long-term benefit is that you prevent a future supervolcano eruption which would devastate humanity.” The “surrounding area” (Wyoming, Idaho, Montana) is home to only 3 million people, and they would likely be quite upset if drawing heat out of the caldera caused Yellowstone’s geothermal features to shut down and destroy the parks’ tourist potential. The caldera is almost completely within the park boundaries anyway, so the hottest spots are off limits.

    “it would take thousands of years before only cool rock was left and longer than that to actually confirm that the process had permanently eliminated the threat of an eruption”. They have NO idea what would happen—-their “cooling” efforts could cause a shift in the magma that increases the eruption possibilities.

    And what right do we have to think of ourselves as a “long term civilization”—how do you define that anyway, and how many of them have we had on the planet? (Do the dinosaurs count?) Hubris rules!

    • redskylite Says:

      You made some profound points there – that idea should go in the same box as some of the risky geoengineering ideas. It’s been 26,000 years since the last one popped off (in my neck of the woods). so the risk from mother nature is pretty low – lets really address cutting CO2 emissions and forging ahead on what we know works. We have far too little time for grandiose experiments (with a dose of risk).

      Deep inside Earth, scientists find weird blobs and mountains taller than Mount Everest

      he mantle blobs are of special interest because of their impact on life on the surface. Recent work by Maria Tsekhmistrenko, a seismologist at the University of Oxford, confirms the blobs as a source of the hot mantle plumes — and those plumes can trigger devastating supervolcanic eruptions when they surface.

      https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/deep-inside-earth-scientists-find-weird-blobs-mountains-taller-mount-ncna997111

      • redskylite Says:

        26,000 years since the last vei.8 eruption, the lesser vei.7 was more recent. . might knock a few of the solar energy genereation plants out. (my point about avoiding single source for energy).

        “TAUPO, New Zealand – Sailing across New Zealand’s pristine Lake Taupo on a blue-sky day, it is hard to comprehend the level of destruction that took place here 1,800 years ago when the Taupo “supervolcano” erupted. Forests were flattened and mountains collapsed as plumes of superheated gas, pumice and ash rose 50 kilometers (31 miles) into the air.

        The Taupo eruption around A.D. 232 is regarded as the most violent of the past 5,000 years, with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) magnitude of 7 on a scale of 0 to 8.”

        https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2019-04-15/scientists-study-supervolcanoes-to-better-prepare-for-eruptions

      • dumboldguy Says:

        “…lets really address cutting CO2 emissions and forging ahead on what we know works. We have far too little time for grandiose experiments…”

        Couldn’t have said it better.

  4. Vinny Risalvato Says:

    WHAT A GREAT IDEA…. EITHER WAY ITS A GREAT IDEA….

  5. Rae Hart Says:

    What if Yellowstone is the very thing keeping the core of our planet alive? NASAs big Idea is to shut the world down? You know what they say.. He who harnesses all power, destroys all.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      who says that?

      • dumboldguy Says:

        No one with any understanding of what goes on in “the core of the planet” (and it’s not “alive” anyway).

        Maybe it’s a misuse of the familiar “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?.


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