Icy Heat Generator: Could Europa Discovery Lead To Affordable Heating In Winter?

Jupiter’s moon Europa could inspire an affordable, new kind of icy heat generator. NASA’s Juno mission was investigating whether or not a moon orbiting the largest planet in the Milky Way could potentially support life, when they discovered that its icy crust actually generates heat.

Researchers of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, have taken recorded findings on the surface of Europa and combined it with computer simulations and lab experiments. What they discovered might have implications that could help lower your heating bill if they can learn to replicate it. No, Jupiter’s moon isn’t going to lower your heating bill in Winter by itself; it’s so far away that without a telescope, it is not noticeable.

The Juno mission was originally meant to discover if humans can survive on Jupiter’s ice-covered planet, though the science uncovered could work for us right at home.

Every winter, many people living in the more polar regions are forced to turn on gas heating units and space heaters to make homes less of a shiver-fest. The biggest problem with this method of keeping warm is that these heating solutions are often costly. If a Europa-inspired icy heat generator can be made here on Earth, however, it might actually help lower heating bills.

The problem is that the icy heat generator phenomenon on Europa is partially created by Jupiter’s massive gravitational pull, something which we can only simulate at home with vacuum cleaners, magnets, or suction cups, all forms of artificial gravity.

Before the 1970s, scientists expected a lot of immobile surfaces on satellites, but observation has revealed dynamic shifts in many of them. Europa’s icy crust is almost constantly shifting, said Christine McCarthy of Columbia University.

“(Scientists) had expected to see cold, dead places, but right away they were blown away by their striking surfaces. There was clearly some sort of tectonic activity – things moving around and cracking. There were also places on Europa that look like melt-through or mushy ice.”

This is similar to Earth’s tectonic plates, which sometimes cause earthquakes and at other times can ignite volcanoes. The shifting of the ice on Europa’s surface actually keeps the sub-surface ocean from freezing.

Reid Cooper of Brown University hinted that figuring out how the icy heat generator works is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, if you’ll pardon the pun.

“Christine discovered that, relative to the models the community has been using, ice appears to be an order of magnitude more dissipative than people had thought. The beauty of this is that once we get the physics right, it becomes wonderfully extrapolative.

“Those physics are first order in understanding the thickness of Europa’s shell. In turn, the thickness of the shell relative to the bulk chemistry of the moon is important in understanding the chemistry of that ocean. And if you’re looking for life, then the chemistry of the ocean is a big deal.”

There have been suggestions that life could currently be existing within Europa’s icy heat generator, but mostly bacteria. For now, the best bet for heating appears to be in the ocean beneath the surface, and colonizing under water is a risky prospect at best.

If scientists can replicate the heat generated by Europa’s icy surface and learn to magnify it, it might lead to a revolutionary, and perhaps environmentally friendly, form of affordable indoor heating. It might also open the door to a livable environment elsewhere.

[Image via Janez Volmajer/Shutterstock.com]