AltaRock's Quake-Inducing Geothermal Energy Search

AltaRock is a small company looking for geothermal energy sources just north of San Francisco. With venture funding from firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Google, it is looking to drill deep holes into the earth to extract its heat.

However, the method being used caused a significant earthquake the last time it was used in Basel, Switzerland, by Markus O. Häring, a former oilman.

Mr. Häring knew that by its very nature, the technique created earthquakes because it requires injecting water at great pressure down drilled holes to fracture the deep bedrock. The opening of each fracture is, literally, a tiny earthquake in which subterranean stresses rip apart a weak vein, crack or fault in the rock. The high-pressure water can be thought of loosely as a lubricant that makes it easier for those forces to slide the earth along the weak points, creating a web or network of fractures.

Mr. Häring planned to use that network as the ultimate teapot, circulating water through the fractures and hoping it emerged as steam. But what surprised him that afternoon was the intensity of the quakes because advocates of the method believe they can pull off a delicate balancing act, tearing the rock without creating larger earthquakes.

Analysis of the data showed that he had indeed caused a 3.4 Richter scale earthquake. Since it was more shallow than natural quakes, it was accompanied by an "air shock" roaring noise. The project was immediately shut down.

You may wonder why this method will be used north of San Francisco, in an area laced with fault lines. Swarms of small quakes have already been set off by a less geologically invasive set of energy projects there.

Apparently, AltaRock did not mention the Basel event to the federal Bureau of Land Management in seeking a permit.

Fans of the LucasArts game Fracture may recall weaponry like Tectonic Grenades that create "terrain deformation" as a part of game play.


(Terrain deformation rising)

I also recall project RUMOKO from the 1976 novella My Name is Legion by Roger Zelazny. In the story, a company attempts to create artificial islands in the ocean by detonating nuclear explosives on the sea floor where magama lay close to the surface.

We got far enough away, and the signal was given. Over the port bow, I saw the old man stand up. He was old and gray and wore a wide brimmed hat. He stood, slouched and fell on his face.

The glow continued and a dark form appeared. RUMOKO. It was the cone. An artificially created island.
(Read more about Zelazny's RUMOKO)

Via New York Times and BldgBlog.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/25/2009)

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