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Melting things for science: studying potential volcanic eruptions in the lab

By in Technology

The Brunswickan (University of New Brunswick)

Ohhh, neato!
With enough pressure and heat, scientists cam simulate the environment at the centre of the earth.

FREDERICTON (CUP) — How do you journey to the centre of the earth?

You, don’t — not to the actual centre, at least.

But with an overpowered mini-furnace and a big piston, you can get several kilometers down, or at least simulate those conditions.

Pressure and heat are the tools used by professor Cliff Shaw, the department chair of earth sciences at UNB. With a furnace the size of a mini-fridge, he can blast rock samples to over 2,000 degrees, similar to the heat found many kilometers under our feet.

“I can melt just about anything,” said Shaw. “It never gets boring.”

The piston, which Shaw uses, is the other aspect of recreating the earth’s insides. It has the ability to place 150 tonnes of pressure on rock samples to bring them to what would be normal conditions for about 130 kilometers below the surface.

All this extreme heating and squeezing is designed to study how materials react and how they may potentially be a risk to millions of lives.

Shaw specializes in the study of potentially lethal volcanoes. He’s currently in charge of determining if a series of volcanoes in Germany are still active. With 100,000 people living under its shadow, it’s a genuine threat if it blows. Just a hundred kilometers away live another six million people. Cologne, the country’s fourth-largest city, lies within the volcanoes radius.

“The last time it went off was 10,000 years ago,” said Shaw. “That might seem like a long time, but geologically, it’s really not.”

Cliff Shaw in action in the lab.
Cliff Shaw in action in the lab.
Predicting volcanic eruptions allows for governments and communities to prepare for the worst. Scientists like Shaw can map out how lava will flow, based on the material studies that they do in the lab. By analyzing the consistency of rock materials at extreme heat and pressure, the speed of lava and magma can be predicted, both above and below the earth’s surface.

While burning lava is extremely dangerous, the biggest impact from volcanoes such as these is the ash fallout which follows.

A sky full of volcanic ash can bring down an airplane in mid-flight. Once it gets into the engine, it destroys it from the inside-out. The Icelandic eruptions from two years ago shutdown air traffic in 20 European countries for almost a week, and cost the industry over a billion dollars. That eruption was considered a small one; a large one has the ability to bring a continent to a grinding halt. Really big ones are thought to have blocked out the sun and caused at least one of the planet’s five mass extinctions.

“By looking at past eruptions, we can better predict what is likely to happen later on,” said Shaw.

“I can build a timeline of an event that no one saw from 100,000 years ago — even over a million years ago — down to probably a few days.”

The nature of the research that Shaw does often requires him to use tools that don’t exist; so, he builds his own. In his workshop is a mechanical lathe, a tool that allows him to build tools.

The lathe is the same model used by the Ferrari Formula One racing team, and is not a standard piece of equipment in a geology lab.

“There was a steep learning curve; but it’s a skill that’s worth having now,” said Shaw. “I’ve gotten to the point where it gives me an edge for sure.”

Photos: bettlebrox/Flickr
Shane Rockland Fowler/CUP

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