Mobilising magma in the largest eruptions: Quantifying critical processes using in situ real time x-ray tomography

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Volcanic eruptions are one the most powerful and impressive natural phenomena, and even relatively small eruptions can have major global impacts. The magma stored beneath volcanoes is an evolving mixture of molten rock (liquid), crystals (solid) and bubbles (gas). As magma cools the number of crystals increases and in principle, when magma reaches ~45% crystals the crystals jam together, 'locking up' and making it too stiff to move: the magma becomes 'uneruptible'. However, some of the most devastating explosive eruptions (including the largest super-eruption ever known) erupt large volumes (100-5000 km3) of this 'uneruptible' crystal-rich (45-60%) magma. So how do these crystal-rich eruptions happen? What lets the magma move?

As we cannot visit a magma chamber, laboratory experiments with natural rock samples and synthetic approximations (analogues) are used to simulate what is happening beneath the volcano. From these experiments, we have developed models that describe how crystal-poor magma will flow when a force is applied (its rheology). However, these rheological models fail for more crystal-rich magma (concentrated suspensions). It is thought that in crystal-rich systems the magmas ability to move is critically controlled by the crystal-crystal, crystal-bubble and bubble-bubble interactions, and the variable spatial distribution of the crystals, bubbles and melt within the sample. In one hypothesis a build-up of pressure drives bubbles through the crystal network, and causes the network to break into pieces. Despite still having the same high crystal content, deformation can then occur in the crystal-poor regions between the pieces, and the magma becomes mobile.

Crystal-rich magmas and their analogues are opaque, and conventional experimental methods do not allow us to observe the internal micro-scale processes. Therefore we have only been able to quantify the average behaviour of a volume of magma. While many possible microstructural interaction processes have been hypothesised, they remain untested. In this project the equipment used for conventional rheological experiments will be modified to allow the collection of 3D images in real time using X-ray computed Micro-Tomography (XMT). At the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility this revolutionising imaging technology can capture the 3D internal structure of a sample (i.e. the distribution of crystals, bubbles and melt in a magma) in as little as a few seconds: producing a 3D 'movie' of what happens when the magma is deformed. By applying standard image analysis techniques to the 3D images captured over the course of an experiment, the distribution of bubbles, crystals, and melt can be quantified; every crystal and bubble can be tracked through time; and the nature of every interaction can be identified. For the first time we will be able to see what is happening inside the magma in 4D (3D + time).

By working with analogue materials, and systematically testing the microstructural behaviour as we change the crystal content, crystal shape, bubble volume and a range of other parameters known to vary in magma chambers (e.g. temperature, pressure) the high speed 4D data will be used to map out the nature and importance of the different interactions, and define the role of micro-scale variability (phase distributions and interactions) on flow. These data will be used to build a new generation of rheological models that describe the mobility of complex two- and three-phase concentrated magmatic suspensions based on an accurate understanding of the microstructural physics and micro-scale variability. By running 4D experiments on natural samples and testing the model against the results, the project will identify the conditions under which crystal-rich magmas can erupt, and begin to identify the magmatic processes that lead to the most devastating eruptions.

Planned Impact

This project will deliver methodologies, equipment and techniques with cross-disciplinary impact, and marks a world-wide academic advancement - in line with RCUKs impact objective. The volcanology impacts will help develop more robust forecasting models with associated economic and societal impact. Beyond volcanology, it will produce a new generation of models that describe the behaviour of concentrated two- and three-phase suspensions that will be applicable to other fields (civil engineering, materials science, food science). It enables in situ observation during rheometric tests and provides an image analysis 'toolbox' for analysing these data. Specific societal and economic impacts include:

1) Industries using complex multi-phase fluids/suspensions (concrete, foodstuffs, ceramics casting etc.) will gain new models of rheological behaviours that are applicable to other systems. They also gain a technical capability to perform in situ rheometry experiments for understanding other complex multiphase fluids (XRheo). Better understanding of rheological behaviour allows proceses optimisation, targeted design, and efficiency/energy savings.

2) The XRheo has the potential to become a widely used technology for industrial and academic applications. Leading UK based equipment manufacturers [Severn (furnace design), Brookfield & Malvern (rheometric testing), Deben & Instron (precision in situ testing)] could commericalse this technology; enhancing their economic competitiveness. Alternatively, Durham University could develop a spin out company for commercialisation.

3) The scientific outputs from the project will ultimately contribute to improving volcanic forecasting and hazard assessment models. This will support policy-makers, government agencies, NGO's and disaster relief charities, the insurance, aviation & transport industries, and will deliver more effective of public services and policy implementation both nationally and internationally. Volcanic forecasting is a highly visible element in managing the commercial transport networks (passenger and freight airlines) needed to maintain UK and international economic performance. Ultimately impact in this sector will mean improved risk mitigation, and reduced danger to life. The applicant already has links to several volcanic risk stakeholder-focussed consortia (STREVA, FutureVolc, Vuelco), and associated agencies (INGV, Icelandic Meteorological Office, BGS, USGS) which will be maintained.

4) The UK suffers from a lack of numerate graduates for the wider workforce. This project will deliver wider UK socio-economic by maintaining the international profile of UK research PLC, thereby attracting the best UK and international staff and students. It provides training on world class facilities to undergraduate and postgraduate students, delivering technical and analytical skills that will make them highly employable in any sector. The Fellow will also gain managerial, networking and communication skills to support her future career, and the future generations of students that she will help train.

5) Volcanic awareness within the general public has increased significantly in recent years, and access to cutting edge research through the highly interactive outreach activity will help increases scientific engagement, encourage analytical thinking and inspire the next generation of researchers.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/M018687/1 21/03/2016 30/09/2019 £635,337
NE/M018687/2 Transfer NE/M018687/1 01/10/2019 28/02/2021 £250,372
Description This award is progresssing and has seen the development and application if the XRheo equipment to perform in situ observation of the microstructural evolution of complex fluids using x-ray tomography during standard rheological testing. The system now been successfully deployed at the Swiss Light Source and at Diamond Light Source and the mai pohase of the experimental acqusition work has now ben competed. Data processing is ongoing, using image analysis, particle tracking and microstructural analysis to develop new understanding of the evolving microstructures. The data are already shoinw substatial variability and localisation of deformation, controlled by the local crystal, fluid and gas contents.
Exploitation Route The XRheo and high temperatre furnace system are available to all collabotrative research users who may wsh to use it.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Agriculture, Food and Drink,Construction,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description Hysteresis processes in large volcanic eruptions: the evolution from pumice to obsidian
Amount SFr. 60,000 (CHF)
Funding ID 20161526 
Organisation Swiss Light Source (SLS) 
Sector Academic/University
Country Switzerland
Start 06/2017 
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Description Mobilising magma in the largest eruptions: In situ observation of micro-structural controls on multi-phase fluid rheology
Amount £95,940 (GBP)
Funding ID EE15898 
Organisation Diamond Light Source 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
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Description Programme Grant
Amount £5,976,490 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R034575/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
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Amount SFr. 180,000 (CHF)
Funding ID 20150413 
Organisation Swiss Light Source (SLS) 
Sector Academic/University
Country Switzerland
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Title XRheo 
Description THe XRheo is a modified rotational rheometer thatcan be used on an x-ray synchrotron or laborator imaging system to capture the microstructural evolution of the fluid during deformation while also recording the traditioanl stress-strain-displacement data 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The newly developed tool has enabled me to capture the deformation that occurs in two and three phase flow in a torsional system. It will be made available to otehrs now development is complete. 
Description Achilles 
Organisation Newcastle University
Department School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am the CoI leading the appliction of X-ray tomography as part of this EPSRC platform grant,.
Collaborator Contribution Glendinning S., Rouainia M., Kilsby C., Wilkonson D., Utili S., SmethurstJ., Powrie W., Preston J., Chambers J., Dobson K.J., Hughes P., Toll D., Dixon N., Smith A., Loveridge F., Briggs K., EPSRC Programme Grant Assessment, Costing and enHancement of long lIfe, Long Linear assEtS (ACHILLES)
Impact Glendinning S., Rouainia M., Kilsby C., Wilkonson D., Utili S., SmethurstJ., Powrie W., Preston J., Chambers J., Dobson K.J., Hughes P., Toll D., Dixon N., Smith A., Loveridge F., Briggs K., EPSRC Programme Grant Assessment, Costing and enHancement of long lIfe, Long Linear assEtS (ACHILLES)
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Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
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Impact 10.3390/min8080327
Start Year 2017
Description Tomography for Energy Applications: Hydrogen Pellets 
Organisation University College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I bring the X-ray tomogrpahy expertise to the collaboration
Collaborator Contribution THe partners bring the materials and expertise in the hydrogen pellets
Impact Skipper et al. Diamond Light Source £57,564 (Dobson as CoPI) i12-JEEP. Real Time Ultra-High-Speed Tomography of a Novel Hydrogen Storage Pellet.
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Country Switzerland 
Sector Academic/University 
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Collaborator Contribution Integration with the beam line and development of associated scripting. Support for the experiments.
Impact One xperimental period to come, Data processing on going, No outputs yet.
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