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To Better Understand Lava, an Artist and Scientist Make Their Own

A lab at Syracuse University creates melts basaltic rock in a modified furnace

An active basalt lava flow in the wild (from a volcano, not from the lab) (United States Geological Survey, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

There aren’t any volcanoes in Upstate New York, but that doesn’t mean that people there don’t get to see lava in action. At Syracuse University, science, art and outreach unite with controlled, artificial lava flows. For NPR’s Tumblr, Skunk Bear, Adam Cole produced a video explaining exactly why lava is so fascinating.

The Syracuse University Lava project started with geologist, Jeff Karson, and sculptor, Bob Wysocki. Karson studies lava flows and wanted to test ideas about how eruptions shape the Earth. Wysocki’s art is inspired by natural forms and wanted to creates sculptures with lava flows.

To make the lava, they use a bronze furnace that once melted metal for statutes. After some modifications it now melts basaltic gravel — basalt rock is the main form of cooled real lava. For Earth Magazine, Karson and Wysocki explain a basic lava pour:

Melting a batch of the ancient basalt takes about four hours, but we hold the lava above its melting point for much longer to ensure that it is completely melted and to remove unwanted volatiles such as water. The lava is then poured at temperatures of 1,100 to 1,350 degrees Celsius, comparable to eruption temperatures of natural lava.

By varying the temperature of the lava, the slope and type of surface they pour it on, the team can observe different lava forms and how they are created: bubbles, glass-like shards, taffy-like ribbons and sheets.

The Lava project not only enables art and science but also provides some stunning demonstrations for the public. Take, for example the time a chef used heat radiating off the lava to grill some steaks

To appreciate the varied forms of lava flows, check out Wysocki’s videos of various lava pours, on Vimeo. Here’s lava bubbling as it meets a six-inch thick block of ice.

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