Shedding new light on volcanoes: real time synchrotron x-ray tomography of magmatic phenomena

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering


Volcanic eruptions are powered by magma. To predict their occurrence the models require an in depth understand and quantitative description of the flow properties of magma during transport and eruption. However, there are many properties of magma we still don't fully understand... What causes magma to ascend and erupt? How does magma flow? Will it erupt as a benign effusion or as a catastrophic explosive event? How long will eruptions last? All these are vital questions to the 10% of the global population that lives in the vicinity of an active volcano.

The magmas that drive these volcanic systems are complex liquids that carry variable amounts of both solid crystals and gas bubbles. It is these crystal and bubble cargos and the interactions between them that control how magma behaves, i.e. whether it will flow or blow. Generally, the more crystalline a magma, the more difficult it is to flow and the more likely it will break; similarly, the more bubbly a magma, the more likely it will blow. Understanding the interactions between the liquid, crystals and bubbles is key to understanding magma behaviour, forming one of the grand challenge of volcanology.

At present experimental studies performed to develop models of magma storage (at depth) and volcanic processes (near/at the Earth surface) have been limited by the fact that traditional methods do not allow us to observe what is happening inside the sample during a test. The technology we propose will transform this, giving us the 3D X-ray glasses needed to see into magmatic flow. This will be done using the UK's synchrotron, Diamond Light Source, combined with an experimental rig that can heat, contain, and flow magma whilst ultra-high speed CAT scans are taken to see in side it. This is called 4D imaging - 3D plus time.

This equipment will enable volcanologists to experimentally deform magma whilst quantifying the interaction between liquid, crystals and bubbles in real-time. The data produced will provide a greatly enhanced understanding of these processes, providing the information needed by other groups to produce detailed new models. This will shed new light on volcanoes, improving our ability to constrain magmatic processes and forecast volcanic eruption.

Planned Impact

This project is technology led, and the first major impact with be the development and validation of a world leading capability. However, it will go beyond producing a novel technology to demonstrate its impact on the research community using two key applications. Therefore, the first group to benefit from the technology developments are the magmatic and volcanic research communities. They will be provided with the tools and methodologies to observe the 3D evolution of microstructures taking place in real time during magmatic processes. This will undoubtedly provide new insight into magmatic processes and advance our understanding of volcanic phenomena. Engagement with the appropriate academic audiences is therefore of critical importance. Engagement with the major research groups working in this area has already been initiated by the investigators, and will be maintained throughout the project by dissemination of information by: articles in the Volcanic & Magmatic Study Group (VMSG) and IAVCEII newsletters that together reach over 1500 international volcanic and magmatic researchers, a project website and an open workshop, in addition to traditional academic publications.

In the longer term, the new technology has the potential to have a significant impact from a wider societal and economic perspective, as over 10% of the world's population lives in the vicinity of an active volcano. Any advancement in our understanding and prediction of volcanic eruptions directly affects of all these people, our second group of beneficiaries. Realising and generating long term societal and economic impact for this group will require the uptake of the technology by the research community. The improved understanding of magma transport they will achieve through this the platform will feed new, more robust and accurate volcanic forecasting models. These models are crucial to the third group of beneficiaries: the decision makers (local and national government, NGO, charitable and other agencies) that develop and implement disaster management and evacuation plans that mitigate local impact on those directly effected, and those decision makers using global climate models to plan for planning more indirect effects such as the wider international impact on food production and transportation needs following of major eruptions (CO2, SO2, and volcanic ash).

In the short term, all of the investigators will be actively involved with outreach and engagement activity promoting STEM and geoscience subjects to the general public at open days, school visits, etc. Such engagement helps inspire and motivate future scientists, and increases general societal scientific awareness.

In terms of a wider scientific perspective, the increase in functionality of the in situ rig and 4D imaging techniques has applications in almost all areas of engineering and materials science, providing a wide scientific benefit well beyond the area of magmatic studies.


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