Violent Volcanoes

700 million people live near active volcanoes. We need to get better at spotting the early signs of eruptions, so that local people have enough time to get to safety.

The Lee Group constructs experimental rigs to reproduce the high temperatures and pressures seen deep inside volcanoes. Using these to perform tomography at Diamond Light Source, and working with our colleagues at the Universities of Liverpool and Cambridge, we explore what happens in one of the world’s most dangerous natural phenomena.

Foams & Fragmentation
Using tomography, we look at gas bubbles inside volcanic magma and track them as they grow and interact. The powerful X-rays from Diamond let us see these bubbles in incredibly fine detail, down to the micron scale.

If the gas can escape from the volcano, the lava flows gently. If gas stays trapped in the foam, it is dangerous as the magma can shatter into fragments, called pyroclasts, which are ejected in explosive eruptions.

Tomographic images taken at 950°C at Diamond, showing bubble expansion inside foamy molten magma.

Dangerous Domes
Lava domes are one of the greatest volcanic threats to their surroundings, as they can suddenly explode due to fractures that develop in the magma.

At Diamond, the Lee Group and collaborators perform tomographic experiments to show how these fractures form and provide information about the influence of the different magma components: liquid melt, gas bubbles and crystals.

Friction in the collapsing magma melts the crystals, giving a very runny fluid which controls the fracture and the way the eruption proceeds. Understanding how magma breaks can help forecast these catastrophic explosions and save lives.

Read more about our collaborators at the University of Liverpool

Watch our video about Foams & Fragmentation