Rock starts to melt and form lava inside an oven. Picture: Ingo Sonder
When the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii broke out in July, a "lavabombe" flew into the sky when the lava flowed into the ocean and crashed into a tourist boat docked offshore. Nearly two dozen people were injured.
Now New York New York Times batches homemade lava to simulate the most violent volcanic explosions with spectacular effects.
The work is part of a continuous study of the University of Buffalo Center for Geohazards Studies, which tries to explain why a spontaneous explosion can occur when adding a little water to the lava. To do this, scientists create microcosms of huge volcanic eruptions.
The extreme DIY experiment mimics a physical process called "molten fuel-coolant interaction." This phenomenon describes lava volatile behavior in the presence of water. Sometimes ice, lakes, oceans and underground water can trigger sudden explosions of lava and rock in the event of volcanic eruptions.
Water and lava are historically bad partners. Iceland's volcano in Eyjafjallajokull broke out during a glacier in 2010, creating a 33,000 foot tall ash plume, as magma and water interacted with each other that earthquakes across Europe for a week.
"There are not many places that perform experimental work with magma-water interaction with [molten rock], "Ingo Sonder, the project's main researcher and a researcher at the Center for Geohazards Studies, told the Motherboard. The team's results were published to Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth on Monday.
Ingo Sonder touches molten stones as it melts inside the oven. Picture: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo
To simulate an explosion, scientists first had to make lava. The recipe called basaltic stone – a common type of hard volcanic stone – and very hot. About 130 pounds of basalt was melted in an induction oven at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit for four hours to create 10 gallon batches. Then it was poured into heat resistant steel boxes ranging from 8 to 18 inches high. Next, water was injected through special portals into the walls of the containers at speeds of 6 to 30 feet per minute. Second.
And finally a ten-pound sled hammer dropped to kickstart a blast.
Sometimes only a small material was drafted from lava. Other times there were "stronger reactions with visible vapor rays" that shot 16 feet in the air, the survey notes. Bits of volcanic glass called "Pele's Hair" -navailable to Hawaiian Volcano Goddess-were also found around the site.
Without emphasizing that these early results "can not be applied directly to nature," but noted some trends. For example, dynamic explosions occurred as water was injected faster and into higher containers. "I was surprised to see [this], "Without saying." Interaction intensity increases as we increase height. "
Several trials have also produced explosions with water alone before the sled was introduced.
A phenomenon called "Leidenfrost effect" could explain some of the variability. When liquid is exposed to a much warmer substance, it can produce a protective film that prevents it from boiling. But when this does not happen – for example, when water is heavily injected – the substances can mix. This causes the water to expand in volume, destabilize the mixture and produce the violent spontaneous explosions we sometimes see in nature.
The experiment was conducted at the University of Buffalo's Geohazards Field Station in Ashford, New York. Here, researchers model all kinds of large scales (aka "too big to a laboratory") geological events, such as the creation of volcanic craters by submerged explosions. The station itself builds its own rock melting plant.
Other laboratories have performed similar tests, but on a smaller scale, the study notes. Much of the previous research concerns industrial safety at nuclear power stations.
"A long-term goal for this research is to provide threat analysis methods based on specific characteristics of a volcano," says Sonder.