Watch scientists make and explode lava to study volcanoes


An intense reaction occurs after the water is injected into the molten rock.

Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Not content to just see things explode from volcanoes, researchers at Buffalo University created their own lava – just to watch it explode.

The research, published Nov. 10 in JGR Solid Earth, details a set of experiments the team conducted to understand how volcanoes, filled with magma, naturally interact with water. Sometimes when the two forces collide, nothing happens, but other times, you have a fantastic explosion of magmatic water. The research team wanted to find out why this could happen.

To learn more about this strange interaction, which is called "apygetic eruptions" in natural volcanoes, the team built ovens and filled them with rocks, heating materials up to about 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the rock melted, they placed it in a steel box and then injected it with jets of water.

And then they would wait – and waited for an explosion.

The results speak for themselves:

Sometimes water-wash interactions would provide intense explosive activity and other times the water would evaporate mainly without generating any volcanic eruption. In addition, sometimes the team had to use a deicer, driven by a standard hammer, which would stimulate a reaction – and a lava explosion.

By varying the height of the steel vessel in which the lava was contained and the speed with which the water was injected, the researchers could begin to join what could trigger a spontaneous interaction of lava and water.

They showed that higher steel containers and faster water injection generally corresponded to larger explosions – and in four of their six experiments, there were explosions even before the actuator fell. However, due to the small amount of repeated experiments, the researchers warn that they are only the first few days.

It is hoped that experiments could provide better tools to predict when or how volcanic eruptions may occur. However, before more significant conclusions are drawn about the dynamics of this particular explosive process in real-scale volcanoes, the team agrees that more experiments are needed.

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