Scientists Research using Volcanic Energy and Magma Mining in Currently Active Volcanoes
As climate change continues to worsen and resources become depleted, scientists are looking at new options, like volcanic energy and magma mining, to develop renewable sources without negatively impacting our environment further. There has been an increase in the demand for metals associated with renewable energy technologies. Two metals that are being increasingly used in low-carbon technology are lithium and cobalt. Lithium is used in everything from smartphones to electric vehicles, while cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries.
As the demand for renewable energy resources increases, so will the demand for these metals. It is said that by 2050, lithium production will need to have increased tenfold and cobalt sixfold. And yet, there is uncertainty as to whether we can reach these limits. Moreover, many conventional mining practices implemented today are energy-intensive and environmentally damaging, which doesn’t look good in a world trying to reduce its impact.
Some researchers are looking at finding these resources elsewhere without causing environmental and potentially irreversible damage. They are now looking at magma mining; utilizing volcanic magmatic brine, rich in metals, to help fuel the growth of renewable energy. They have found that magmatic brines that are found worldwide beneath dormant volcanoes and above granites could be used to produce geothermal power. But at depths of around 2km, hot brines containing valuable metals and other elements separate out for the ascending magmatic fluids making the process of magma mining worthwhile.
Magmatic brines are highly saline fluids that form when water and other volatiles are released from magma. They are typically found in the upper crust, at depths of a few kilometers, and can be very rich in metals, such as copper, gold, and silver. They form when magma cools and crystallizes. As the magma cools, it releases water and other volatiles, such as carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and chlorine. These dissolved volatiles can then be separated by magma mining.
The composition of magmatic brines can vary depending on the composition of the magma from which they are formed. However, they typically contain high concentrations of chloride, sulphate, and fluoride ions. The metals dissolved in hot volcanic gases and brine include copper, lithium and silver – imperative to harnessing renewable energy sources. Extracting the metals from a liquid solution should, in theory, be cheaper than processing solid ore and will generate less waste and use less energy.
Active volcanoes such as Mount Etna in Italy release about 20 tonnes of copper and 10 kg of gold daily in volcanic gases. Moreover, about 2000 volcanoes globally have the potential for magma mining. And it’s not like there is a lack of volcanoes erupting worldwide. There have been about 1,350 active volcanoes in the past 12,000 years. That’s a lot of metals that could be used to produce renewable energy.
In terms of geothermal energy, it is said that a small body of magma measuring a fraction of a cubic kilometre could power a whole country the size of the UK. Any surplus energy could be stored in large batteries, which we see in many green energy sectors.
Magma mining a volcano is not easy and will require investing time in technological development, especially when researchers have to deal with temperatures of upwards of 450 degrees Celsius. We also need to continue to broaden our understanding of volcanic systems to avoid unintended consequences. But it can help us to solve the problem of the increase in metal demand that offers a less environmental impact and a potentially carbon-zero approach. We are one step closer to this type of innovation, which would significantly impact how we power our world and utilize resources.