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Watch Scientists Make Their Own Lava

Basaltic rock and a lot of heat equals a homegrown brew that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous

smithsonian.com

Remember the volcanoes you made in grade school? They likely relied on baking soda and vinegar to achieve explosive results. But this simulation won’t cut it for geologists who want to study the strange substance without heading to an active volcano themselves. So they do what any intrepid scientist would: They make it themselves.

Lava making is a risky DIY proposition, but it’s one that’s worth it for scientists like those at the University at Buffalo’s Center for Geohazards Studies. The Center’s field station in Ashford, New York has turned into a kind of homegrown lava factory where geologists melt ten gallons of basaltic rock—darkly colored igneous rocks that are a common part of Earth’s crust—in a single go. 

It takes up to four hours to heat the induction furnace to a piping 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, which is required to melt the rock. Rather than use the homemade lava to do things like grill steaks, it will be used in experiments that pit lava against water. In a release, researchers explain that those interactions are common in nature, but rarely observed. And for obvious reasons: When lava hits water, it can become even more explosive. When flows fall into the sea from Hawaii’s Kilauea, for example, small particles of lava and lots of steam spew in all directions.

The study of lava interactions with water is called hydrovolcanism, and interested geologists want to understand what happens beneath the surface as magma rising from the Earth comes into contact with ice or liquid water. Hydrovolcanic processes cause a number of distinct physical features to form once the lava cools, but they also rev up the ability of volcanoes like Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull, which is covered in ice, to release enormous amounts of ash. Not only did that volcano stop air traffic in Europe for days on end at the beginning of the 2010s, but it’s thought to have made life in the sixth century dusty and dark, too.

University at Buffalo researchers intend to use their homemade molten rock to find out more about such water-driven reactions. They’ll pour it down a ramp that simulates the inside of a volcano and analyze it with the help of microphones and complex sensors. In doing so, they join a handful of researchers brave enough to create their own lava for the sake of science. Other lava makers include Syracuse University, whose Lava Project brings together art and science in beautifully dangerous harmony.

Baking soda may be cool for at-home projects, but there’s nothing like the flowing, melting, massively hot real thing.

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