The hike to the volcano, says geoscience professor Adam Simon, was nearly 7 miles over snow- and ice-covered terrain. At times, a slip could have sent him sliding nearly a thousand feet into a crater lake. The final push came via a rope needed to scale the steep slope to the crater rim. Standing on a volcano 20 time zones from home, the air reeking with sulfur and deafened by the roar of venting steam hot enough to cause third-degree burns, Simon knew he'd chosen the right career.
"Most people have an image of Mount St. Helens in their head," says Simon, "and that's enough to convince them to stay away. For me, it's the opposite -- an adrenaline rush that is hard to compare to anything else."
Simon was peering into Mutnovsky volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia as part of an international symposium on geothermal energy resources. His research team's work there could help harness more efficient, renewable geothermal energy sources in Northern Nevada and elsewhere.
Geothermal energy comes from underground steam. Water from rain or snow enters the ground and travels downward, where it can be heated by volcanic activity.
About 62,000 people currently receive electric power from Mutnovsky's geothermal reserves, and the power plants' owners hope to at least quadruple the output to serve the entire peninsula by tapping wells deeper and closer to the active crater. The deeper the well, the higher the temperature of the steam. Doubling the steam temperature increases the potential electric output tenfold.
Simon is part of a research team aiming to drill farther (3 miles) into an active volcano than anyone ever has. Nobody has yet drilled into an active lava conduit, which is the "straw" through which magma reaches the surface, as this team hopes to do. Reaching these hottest of hot places will allow access to the highest temperature steam, which produces geothermal power most efficiently.
South of Carson City, near Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and extending west-northwest of Reno, lies the Long Valley Caldera, one of the country's most geothermally active areas. Geologists project that the area's geothermal energy could supply electricity to between 250,000 and 300,000 people.
Nevada's 15 geothermal plants power about 73,000 homes, which is only about 2 percent of the state's population. The state has committed to obtaining at least 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015. Knowledge gained in Russia about maximizing efficiency of geothermal power production will help the state reach that goal.
But energy isn't the only resource Simon is investigating in Russia. As an economic geologist, Simon is also interested in the potential of volcanoes to produce high quality ore deposits. Steam laced with metallic particles leaves the magma chamber and undergoes a strong drop in temperature and pressure as it rises quickly toward the surface of the ground. The ores drop out of the solution with the decrease in temperature and pressure.
Simon's role in the project will be to link the chemistry of Mutnovsky's lava to the causes of eruption and the surrounding ore deposits: massive, very high-grade gold and silver deposits that also contain platinum and palladium. The latter two metals are important in catalytic converters, and platinum is used as a catalyst to produce cancer medications.
The presence of the ores at Mutnovsky provides an unusually complete picture of volcanic activity, Simon explains. "We can do geochemistry analyses on the ore, on the volcanic lavas, and on the fumaroles [holes that release hot gases and vapors] and build a complete story," he says. Volcanically related ore deposits are primarily studied after volcanic activity has ended, and often after the volcano has eroded away. At Mutnovsky, all the evidence is still available. Determining the critical factors in ore deposition should help Simon identify the most likely places for additional ore deposits in Russia, Nevada, and around the world.
So far, the Mutnovsky project has shown Simon how many unproven inferences geologists have made about volcanoes. "The science is still evolving," he says, "and for me, that's a blast." Simon wasn't always jazzed about geology. He started college as a political science/German double major. In 1992 he took an introductory geology course to fill a lab science requirement, and "the instructor blew me away," says Simon. "I looked around at my classmates in poli sci wearing khakis and ties and arguing about Clinton versus Bush versus Perot, and then I looked around the geology department and saw their dress code and how they spent their summers -- the decision was easy."