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Geologists make their own lava to prep for explosive experiments

Basaltic rock is melted down in UB scientists' lava-making furnace. Photo: Ingo Sonder

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published June 23, 2016

“Previous studies have used a coffee cup-sized amount of lava. They did it at a small scale. We’re doing it bigger because there are a lot of questions about whether we’ll see the same results when experiments are scaled up.”
Alison Graettinger, UB geology postdoctoral researcher
senior scientist on the project

Scientists in UB’s Center for GeoHazards Studies have started making their own lava to prepare for explosive experiments planned for later this summer.

The purpose of this work?

To study what happens when they expose their molten rock to water.

Lava-water interactions are common in nature but poorly understood. They drive the formation of volcanic maar craters, such as Hunt’s Hole in New Mexico or Lake Nyos in Cameroon. They also can greatly enhance the explosive potential of ice-covered volcanoes such as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruption unleashed an ash cloud that grounded air traffic across much of Europe for nearly a week.

UB’s lava-making operation — one of the largest in the world — will provide a rare, close-up view of the interplay between molten rock and water. The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, will yield insight on why the two substances sometimes generate huge explosions when they come together, and sometimes cause no damage at all.

“As geologists, we want to understand the conditions that generate explosions — how much water do you need? How much time?” says project lead Ingo Sonder, a research scientist in UB’s Center for GeoHazards Studies.

The findings could help scientists better gauge the danger that volcanoes near ice, lakes, oceans and underground water sources pose to surrounding communities.

A recipe for lava

Rock

The main ingredient — the only one, really — is volcanic rock called basalt. UB geologists shipped two tons of it in from a Texas quarry.

Furnace

The rock is dumped into a magnetic induction furnace that heats the mixture to about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The contents are stirred every half hour.

Lava

After about three to four hours, the lava is ready. Each lava-water experiment will use a roughly 10-gallon batch.

The ‘pour’

In the video below, researchers pour freshly made lava into a geologic formation built from gravel. When the lava-water experiments begin, the team will instead direct the lava into a slim metal box that simulates the narrow channels through which molten rock flows inside volcanoes. Then, the scientists will have a minute or two to move the box to a safe distance and inject it with water. Wait any longer and the lava could cool to form a crust.

Protective gear

Magma shack

The magma shack. Photo: Douglas Levere

Lovingly called the “magma shack,” this small, brightly colored building houses the lava furnace.

The structure is part of a Geohazards Field Station in Ashford, New York, that’s equipped with microphones, thermal cameras, pressure sensors and other gear the scientists will use to record what happens when they expose their molten rock to water.

Greg Valentine, director of the Center for GeoHazards Studies, says his center is working to develop portions of the 700-acre site as an international user facility — a place where scientists worldwide can come and run large-scale experiments simulating geological hazards.

The site’s buildout has been supported by the Office of the Provost’s E Fund. Improvements are guided by feedback from the scientific community, including about 50 geohazards experts who met at UB in 2010 to discuss field research needs. The lava furnace provides unique experimental capabilities at the site and, eventually, could be available for use by other researchers, Valentine says.