Skip to Content
Alumni profile

Drilling molten rock to learn its secrets

John Eichelberger ’70, SM ’71

February 23, 2021

Few places on Earth are as hot as the Krafla caldera in Iceland, an enormous volcanic crater where magma was discovered at surprisingly shallow depths. For John Eichelberger ’70, SM ’71, reaching that magma is the terrestrial equivalent of going to the moon.

A professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Eichelberger is best known for his discoveries about how magmas release gas and how different magmas mix, as well as his leadership in drilling to study volcanoes and advocacy for international science and education partnerships. For his contributions to the understanding of natural hazards, the European Geosciences Union awarded him the 2015 Soloviev Medal.

John Eichelberger ’70, SM ’71
PAVEL IZBEKOV/UAF

He is now leading development of the Krafla Magma Testbed (KMT), expected to launch this year with an international coalition of scientists and engineers. The $100 million project involves drilling 2.1 kilometers into a chamber below the volcano that holds magma at temperatures around 900 °C, offering an unprecedented opportunity to study the source of volcanic eruptions and geothermal energy. KMT’s goals include improving eruption forecasting and extracting energy that would be an order of magnitude greater than what’s generated by conventional geothermal sources. 

Eichelberger calls his time at MIT studying igneous petrology “the most influential intellectual experience of my life.” After earning a geology PhD from Stanford, he worked at Los Alamos and then Sandia National Laboratories, whose Magma Energy Project drilled into a Hawaiian lava lake. “Drilling molten rock to learn its secrets became an inspiration, or perhaps an obsession, that drove much of my later career,” he says. 

In 1989, a 747 flew into a volcanic ash cloud over Alaska and nearly crashed, which led to new funding for monitoring volcanoes under air routes. Eichelberger moved north to become UAF’s lead volcanology professor, expanding the Alaska Volcano Observatory into a key post that tracks volcanic activity along the Aleutian Island chain and (with Russian colleagues) Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. He later led the US Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program, before returning to UAF in 2012 to become dean of the graduate school. In 2020, he edited a special issue of Geosciences on magma-hydrothermal systems. 

Eichelberger has lost colleagues to eruptions and had close calls himself. An MIT mentor, the late Thomas R. McGetchin, taught him to limit exposure to the work’s unique risks: “Go there, do what you need to do, and get out.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.