Print 39 comment(s) - last by maugrimtr.. on Oct 8 at 5:25 AM

Project will try to drill down 6 km at the crust's thinnest location in the Pacific Ocean

It sounds like a plot of a science fiction movie.  But to Damon Teagle, a geochemistry professor at the UK's University of Southampton and "The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program" (IODP) co-leader, the ambitious effort to be the first humans to drill to the Earth's mantle is dead serious.

I. The Race to the Mantle

While many have long held that such an effort is infeasible given current technology and the expense involved, Professor Teagle and company hatched a bold scheme to venture out in one of three locations in the Pacific Ocean and use deep-sea drilling equipment to tunnel 6 km (3.7 miles) down, eventually hitting the mantle.

On land the Earth's crust is up to 60 km thick, making drilling to the mantle unlikely to succeed with today's technology.  But Professor Teagle is convinced that by using deep sea drilling at one of these locations (ocean ridges) where the crust is the thinnest, the mantle can be reached and sampled for "only" about $1B USD.

The effort will require 10 km-long (6.2 miles) drill pipes to drill through the ultra-hard rocks that are though to surround the mantle.

Croatian meteorologist Andrija Mohorovicic first discovered the Earth’s mantle-crust boundary.  The mantle is a 2,900 km layer of the Earth's onion-like composition.  Composed mostly of silicon dioxide (the same material that sand or semiconductors are made of), temperatures at the crust border range from 500 to 900 °C (932 to 1,652 °F).  The mantle, at its molten inner surface touches the Earth's molten nickel-iron core, where temperatures reach 4,000 °C (7,230 °F).

Professor Teagle calls the project "the most challenging endeavor in the history of Earth science", comparing it to the Apollo Program.  He says the project will serve to "inspire" future generations of scientists and will leave a "legacy of fundamental scientific knowledge" -- namely, giving a never-before-glimpsed look at representative mantle chemistry, temperatures, and pressure.  According to Professor Teagle, this would be a big step forward as we currently only have a "reasonable" of the Mantle's composition and behavior.

drill bit
The hardest challenge will be digging through the hard rocks closest to the mantle.
[Image Source: CNN]

He comments in a CNN interview, "[The mantle] is the engine that drives how our planet works and why we have earthquakes and volcanoes and continents. We have the textbook cartoons but detailed knowledge is lacking."

II. No Guarantees

The project will make use of a pre-existing Japanese deep-sea drilling vessel named Chikyu.  A hulking, lumbering ship Chikyu can carry up to 10 km of drilling pipes and set a scientific deep sea drilling world-record of 2.2 km in early testing.  The hole drilled by the IODP drills will be a mere 30 cm in diameter -- or roughly one foot wide.

Chikyu at sea
The Chikyu, at sea [Image Source: CNN]

Professor Teagle gives some perspective on how much a feat this is, commenting, "It will be the equivalent of dangling a steel string the width of a human hair in the deep end of a swimming pool and inserting it into a thimble 1/10 mm wide on the bottom, and then drilling a few meters into the foundations."

The drill bits will need to be replaced every 50 to 60 hours, and additionally special bits may need to be swapped to drill through ultra-hard near-mantle crust layer.  That means the project could take more than a year to complete, unless better drill bits can be produced.

Chikyu pipes
The Chikyu can carry up to 10 km worth of pipes. [Image Source: CNN]

The IODP is not the first effort to drill down to the mantle.  The first major attempt dates back to 1966 when a team of U.S. researchers drilled off the coast of the eastern Pacific's Guadalupe Island.  The project, dubbed "Project Mohole" in honor or Professor "Mo" Mohorovicic, reached only a few meters before it was abandoned.

A land-based project by the Russians in the 1980s in the Kola Peninsula drilled down 12 km into the Earth's crust, earning a record for deepest borehole that still stands.  Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) in 2011 drilled a longer borehole (12+ km) in Easter Russia, however the hole was drilled on an angle.

Thus to summarize how close man has came to drilling to the mantle yet, the best answer is "not very close".  

The ocean-based effort clearly provides an easier route that is within historic borehole depths (12 km).  However, the difficulties of drilling at sea and of penetrating the hard inner crust make success uncertain, even as Professor Teagle's team forges ahead.

Source: CNN

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Seems like a...
By unplug on 10/3/2012 3:39:38 PM , Rating: 2
bad idea.

RE: Seems like a...
By Ristogod on 10/3/2012 3:45:17 PM , Rating: 2
why would they want to?

RE: Seems like a...
By Brandon Hill on 10/3/2012 3:46:43 PM , Rating: 5
"Hack the Planet"

Nuff said

RE: Seems like a...
By paydirt on 10/3/2012 3:50:38 PM , Rating: 3
I'm not a scientist... I just worry that somehow the mantle crust is "keeping the mantle in". If we create a hole in the mantle, what are the implications?

RE: Seems like a...
By JasonMick on 10/3/2012 3:55:47 PM , Rating: 5
I'm not a scientist... I just worry that somehow the mantle crust is "keeping the mantle in". If we create a hole in the mantle, what are the implications?
What if we discover there's secretly dinosaurs and tribes of people living down there?


RE: Seems like a...
By hellokeith on 10/3/2012 11:31:02 PM , Rating: 2
What if we discover there's secretly dinosaurs and tribes of people living down there?


There was in fact an old (1970) Doctor Who episode on this very matter, but it turned out much worse than a dinosaur utopia.

RE: Seems like a...
By Flunk on 10/3/2012 11:42:47 PM , Rating: 4
He's referring to "Journey to the Center of the Earth" by Jules Verne, that's a little bit older than the 70's.

RE: Seems like a...
By drycrust3 on 10/4/12, Rating: -1
RE: Seems like a...
By EvoTheory on 10/5/2012 12:00:48 AM , Rating: 2
One of the beliefs in quantum physics is the idea of parallel universes, so even though the centre of the earth is solid, it may be that Hell does co-exist with it there.

That's not at all how that works. The Multiverse theory would be a near infinite number of paralell universes existing together in the multiverse. There would not be parts of one universe sticking into another based upon this theory. Referencing quantum physics in the theory you suggested was pretty bad.

With all that said, I will be ecstatic if we find something beyond mantle in the lower mantle.

RE: Seems like a...
By othercents on 10/3/2012 3:56:14 PM , Rating: 3
I don't know... Volcano?

RE: Seems like a...
By Solandri on 10/3/2012 5:43:02 PM , Rating: 5
The crust is just mantle that's been exposed to air/space and allowed to cool. Yes poking a hole down to the liquid mantle could allow a bit of the mantle to escape like a volcano. But if it should somehow get out of control, it will cool and block itself up just like with the rest of the crust.

In terms of risk, you should worry more about tapping into reservoirs of material which does not solidify upon contact with the air.

RE: Seems like a...
By Totally on 10/3/2012 4:03:28 PM , Rating: 2
An 'I accidentally' meme waiting to happen.

RE: Seems like a...
By HoosierEngineer5 on 10/3/2012 4:09:22 PM , Rating: 5
Maybe the ocean will start draining out, like a stopper pulled out of a tub.

Could be the solution to ocean level rise.

RE: Seems like a...
By ShaolinSoccer on 10/4/2012 7:39:36 AM , Rating: 2
Or maybe ALL the ocean's water will drain then we turn into something like Mars.

RE: Seems like a...
By FITCamaro on 10/3/2012 4:18:19 PM , Rating: 5
Please tell me you're joking.

RE: Seems like a...
By Samus on 10/4/2012 12:12:17 AM , Rating: 3
Well, maybe the Mayan's were right after all...we're all going to die in a hellish volcanic inferno!

RE: Seems like a...
By CZroe on 10/4/2012 2:41:53 PM , Rating: 2
Just another of many temporarily active underwater volcanoes. Duh. I wonder if we can harness the steam for power generation.

RE: Seems like a...
By arazok on 10/3/2012 8:26:24 PM , Rating: 2
Because the red matter is usless if you have nothing to drop it into.

RE: Seems like a...
By Reclaimer77 on 10/3/2012 4:52:44 PM , Rating: 1
Learning about our planet and what lies below us, to better understand what happens on the surface...yeah terrible idea!

You realize that in relation to the area we're talking about, this "drilling" amounts to about as much "damage" as poking a king size sheet with a needle right?

RE: Seems like a...
By Ammohunt on 10/3/2012 5:39:33 PM , Rating: 2
I think we need some environmental impact studies done prior to any drilling the mantle could be a unique habitat home to rare bacteria that's on the endangered species list!let us hug the earth not drill holes in it!

RE: Seems like a...
By mcnabney on 10/4/2012 10:00:02 AM , Rating: 2
I know you are joking and that there aren't going to be any living things inside the mantle, but we probably shouldn't just let them drill wherever they want. There is a fairly good chance that this drilling operation will result in a miniature volcano. Might want to be a little bit choosy where we create a volcano.

RE: Seems like a...
By Ammohunt on 10/4/2012 2:53:23 PM , Rating: 2
The thought did cross my mind but they would have to drill through the upper and lower mantles to get to any magma. If they did I am not quite sure a bore hole would be big enough to allow a large enough flow of magma to create a volcanic island. The lower mantle would have to be pretty thin where they are drilling and if that were the case they would already have seen evidence of a hot spot.

RE: Seems like a...
By Falacer on 10/3/2012 8:01:09 PM , Rating: 2
I dont see any good that can come of this!

RE: Seems like a...
By marvdmartian on 10/4/2012 8:23:37 AM , Rating: 2
When they hit the mantle, and the Earth deflates through space, like a giant balloon, I am SO going to say, "I told you so!!"

RE: Seems like a...
By rbo on 10/5/2012 9:15:26 AM , Rating: 2
By tim851 on 10/3/2012 4:14:25 PM , Rating: 3
"It will inspire future generations of scientists..."

Yeah, I'm sure there'll be lots of kids changing their dream future job from "astronaut" to "core driller". And just imagine all the new knowledge we'll be gaining from this drilling like maybe changing our estimated temperature of the mantle by 0.1 fahrenheit.

I'm for all kinds of stupid crap we do for science's sake, like lunar bases or super-colliders, but each of the dineros going into making this mission reality would be better spent on any other project. Even cold fusion research.

RE: Optimistic
By Ringold on 10/3/2012 4:39:05 PM , Rating: 2
That's what I thought too when I read it; what do they expect to find that they didn't already suspect?

At least money spent just about anywhere else has a decent likelihood of creating some truly unexpected result. Searching for gravity waves has turned in to an unexpected debate about a holographic universe, for example. Telescopes find unexpected things all the time, or look at things we know are there but don't at all know what details we'll find -- unlike the mantle. Bleeding edge medical research continually seems surprised by what it learns about how DNA, RNA, proteins, etc work.

Ah well. I just won't have this in the back of my mind as something I'm looking forward to, unlike, say, the James Webb Space Telescope, fusion, VASMIR, etc.

RE: Optimistic
By SPOOFE on 10/3/2012 4:43:18 PM , Rating: 3
what do they expect to find that they didn't already suspect?

Greater accuracy of current models, if nothing else. Maybe something new and unexpected? Maybe.

RE: Optimistic
By TSS on 10/4/2012 8:29:39 AM , Rating: 2
I'd rather they'd spend that $1 billion on exploring the ocean floor itself rather then what's beneath it. That way you'll be guarranteed to find new and unexpected things.

RE: Optimistic
By maugrimtr on 10/8/2012 5:25:53 AM , Rating: 2
I think it's sad that people think this is a waste of time. Drilling down to the mantle, taking samples, and observing it directly for the first time in history rather than indirect sources like volcanoes (not really representative since that's rapidly cooled), radar, and models (we're familiar with climate modelling and the controversy over its accuracy, right?).

Science often seems like a waste of time when examining the obvious but that's the beauty of science: assume nothing and question everything. Until there's a direct observation, we must make do with a best-fit explanation, i.e. a theory. The drilling is the experiment to see if what we find is what we expect...or whether we find something completely new.

Also, tiny pinpricks in the Earth do not create volcanoes...

What's the point?
By Captin Crunch on 10/3/2012 4:02:29 PM , Rating: 2
Is there any real world benefit to doing this? Super geothermal power??

fail idea, transfer that money to the Mars project.

Also, "The Core" was a stupendously crap film.

RE: What's the point?
By FITCamaro on 10/3/2012 4:29:55 PM , Rating: 2
I actually kind of enjoyed the movie.

Especially when the dude is talking to himself, recording it, as he sits next to an active nuclear bomb in the center of the Earth, waiting for it to go off.

RE: What's the point?
By SPOOFE on 10/3/2012 4:42:23 PM , Rating: 2
Is there any real world benefit to doing this?

None definitively spring to mind, though I will point out that there is value to making actual, real-world confirmation of information that is currently theoretical.

Also? One of my first thoughts was the Glomar Explorer and its mission to harvest manganese nodules... which was cover for a secret mission to recover a lost Soviet nuclear sub (which may or may not have been successful).

Mantle is not molten
By DesertCat on 10/3/2012 4:22:30 PM , Rating: 3
To correct something from the article and that people are worrying about, the mantle is not molten. The upper portion of the mantle is still part of the lithosphere and is solid and brittle. Below the lithosphere (typically at a depth of about 150 km) you run into the asthenosphere (also part of the mantle) which isn't molten either, but is a soft solid kind of like room temperature butter. At mid-ocean ridges, the asthenosphere is closer to the surface and, due to the decreased pressure, it is able to partially melt. That results in some volcanism at the mid-ocean ridge.

The researchers are not going to poke a hole and get a massive volcano out of some massive underground cavern of molten rock. That's just not the way it is.

RE: Mantle is not molten
By DesertCat on 10/3/2012 4:27:44 PM , Rating: 2
From what I gather, the researchers are trying to drill to the moho boundary where the composition changes from basalt to peridotite. They will still be drilling in a solid when they hit the peridotite.

Sink it
By Trisped on 10/3/2012 8:04:50 PM , Rating: 2
Sounds like it would be easier to sink the whole drilling rig down to the drill site and run it remotely, rather then try to power the drills from the ocean surface.

RE: Sink it
By delphinus100 on 10/3/2012 8:26:57 PM , Rating: 2
Were that so, you'd see oil drilling done that way...

Isn't the mantle pressurized?
By BifurcatedBoat on 10/4/2012 3:50:58 PM , Rating: 2
I would assume they've already thought about it, but is there any risk of creating a manmade volcano?

By BifurcatedBoat on 10/4/2012 3:52:19 PM , Rating: 2
Nevermind, I see that DesertCat has already addressed that question.

"I mean, if you wanna break down someone's door, why don't you start with AT&T, for God sakes? They make your amazing phone unusable as a phone!" -- Jon Stewart on Apple and the iPhone

Most Popular Articles5 Cases for iPhone 7 and 7 iPhone Plus
September 18, 2016, 10:08 AM
Laptop or Tablet - Which Do You Prefer?
September 20, 2016, 6:32 AM
Update: Samsung Exchange Program Now in Progress
September 20, 2016, 5:30 AM
Smartphone Screen Protectors – What To Look For
September 21, 2016, 9:33 AM
Walmart may get "Robot Shopping Carts?"
September 17, 2016, 6:01 AM

Copyright 2016 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki