Scientists want to go to the middle of the continent near Rugby to peer deep where few have looked before.

On Thursday, the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks will approach the state to drill down more than 16,000 feet into the oldest rock on the planet to conduct a rare geological science experiment.

The State Land Board will hear plans to use 20 acres of state-owned land near Balta in Pierce County for a Department of Energy project to test whether crystalline rock is suitable for storing spent nuclear waste capsules.

The EERC would have the drilling contract and the opportunity to study rock that’s 4 billion and 6 billion years old, the building block of the continent, says John Harju, associate research director.

“This is a big-time science project. There might be a handful of penetrations into deep crystalline rock, but none to this kind of depth — very rarely has a bore hole been attempted at these depths,” Harju said.

The core samples from the boring would be a valuable addition to the state’s core library and studied by geologists for decades to come, according to Harju.

“There could be diamonds. We don’t know what these rocks look like. The sheer exploration opportunity this affords is astounding,” Harju said.

North Dakota has thousands of deep holes punched by rigs that drill 10,000 feet into the Bakken formation, located in the sedimentary rock layers of the geological Williston Basin. The basin “sits” on top of the extremely hard igneous and metamorphic crystalline formation.

“We know a lot about what’s on top, but about the deep crystalline rocks under the basin, very little is understood,” said Harju, pointing out that the project is not a first step to nuclear waste disposal in North Dakota.

Instead, the information will help the DOE understand the rock formation and the drilling technology to get there for possible disposal of spent fuels that currently have no permanent storage home. Crystalline rock underlies much of the continent.

“This might have suitability for (nuclear waste) disposal, but that would encompass pretty much of the continent. I don’t think that’s a foregone conclusion by any means,” Harju said.

Lance Gaebe said the five-member land board has said it wants to make the call and he’ll suggest that EERC provide a pre-application survey.

Gaebe said the proposed site is in pasture that’s leased for grazing, but the land board could make a lease adjustment and require the EERC fence off the drilling site, like it does for oil drilling.

The DOE announced in early January that it has committed $35 million to the five-year project and awarded the primary contract to the Battelle Institute, which is bringing in the EERC as a project partner.

Harju said the drilling will take nine months, compared to less than four weeks for a Bakken well. A second drill test would be done for a wider bore hole.

(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)