Posted June 13, 2008on:
“Geothermal” comes from the Greek words geo (earth) and thermal (heat). So, geothermal means earth heat.Our earth’s interior – like the sun – provides heat energy from nature. This heat – geothermal energy – yields warmth and power that we can use without polluting the environment.Geothermal heat originates from Earth’s fiery consolidation of dust and gas over 4 billion years ago. At earth’s core – 4,000 miles deep – temperatures may reach over 9,000 degrees F.
The heat from the earth’s core continuously flows outward. It transfers (conducts) to the surrounding layer of rock, the mantle. When temperatures and pressures become high enough, some mantle rock melts, becoming magma. Then, because it is lighter (less dense) than the surrounding rock, the magma rises (convects), moving slowly up toward the earth’s crust, carrying the heat from below.
Sometimes the hot magma reaches all the way to the surface, where we know it as lava. But most often the magma remains below earth’s crust, heating nearby rock and water (rainwater that has seeped deep into the earth) – sometimes as hot as 700 degrees F. Some of this hot geothermal water travels back up through faults and cracks and reaches the earth’s surface as hot springs or geysers, but most of it stays deep underground, trapped in cracks and porous rock. This natural collection of hot water is called a geothermal reservoir.
From earliest times, people have used geothermal water that flowed freely from the earth’s surface as hot springs. The oldest and most common use was, of course, just relaxing in the comforting warm waters. But eventually, this “magic water” was used (and still is) in other creative ways. The Romans, for example, used geothermal water to treat eye and skin disease and, at Pompeii, to heat buildings. As early as 10,000 years ago, Native Americans used hot springs water for cooking and medicine. For centuries the Maoris of New Zealand have cooked “geothermally,” and, since the 1960s, France has been heating up to 200,000 homes using geothermal water.
Today we drill wells into the geothermal reservoirs to bring the hot water to the surface. Geologists, geochemists, drillers and engineers do a lot of exploring and testing to locate underground areas that contain this geothermal water, so we’ll know where to drill geothermal production wells. Then, once the hot water and/or steam travels up the wells to the surface, they can be used to generate electricity in geothermal power plants or for energy saving non-electrical purposes