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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

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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.

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