Visiting an Exotic Place

By Petroski, Henry | ASEE Prism, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Visiting an Exotic Place


Petroski, Henry, ASEE Prism


Iceland is an environmentalist's paradise and an engineer's playland.

THE UNIVERSITY OF ICELAND celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and I was happy to have been invited to be the honorary speaker for the School of Engineering and Natural Sciences. Participating in the centennial event gave my wife and me an opportunity to learn more about the exotic land.

Iceland is not very densely populated. Its approximately 100,000 square kilometers of land are inhabited by about 320,000 people, more than a third of whom live in the capital city of Reykjavik. But what it may lack in population density, the island nation more than makes up for in hospitality - and geological features. After my talk, the school's dean, who is a geologist, the head of the faculty of civil and environmental engineering, and the school's director of marketing gave up their Sunday to show us around.

Striking sites abound on this island in the North Atlantic that is located about midway between North America and Europe. Its horizon is interrupted by conical volcanoes; its ground is punctuated with steaming geysers; its shoreline is sliced by steep fjords; its interior is deep in glaciers. There are very visible earthquake rifts, even one preserved (and instrumented) under Plexiglas in a shopping center. Underground, there are pockets of geothermal energy, ready to be exploited to produce inexpensive green power.

Iceland would thus seem to be a geologist's museum, an outdoorsman's dream, an environmentalist's paradise, and an engineer's playland. And indeed engineers have been tapping into the geothermal reservoirs with deep boreholes to reach down to pockets of heat within the Earth and bring their energy to the surface to drive steam turbines that in turn drive electric generators.

In fact, about 25 percent of the country's electric power comes from geothermal sources, with the other 75 percent being from hydroelectric. In addition, residents of Reykjavik need not bum wood or coal or gas or oil to heat their homes; that is done by means of hot water that is a byproduct of the geothermal process.

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