iPhone-sized silicon carbide sensors to probe volcanoes

British researchers developed silicon carbide sensors to withstand the harsh environment in volcanoes.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

If you've ever visited a volcano, you know the familiar rotten egg smell that comes from sulfur dioxide.

Sulfur dioxide is one of the gases in magma that drive explosive volcanic eruptions. For this reason, changes in gases can provide useful eruption warnings.

But sampling volcanic gases can be dangerous, especially when it involves sending a scientist to the site of the volcano to examine the activity. And sensors usually can't handle the harsh environment of the volcano.

Volcanoes are deadly. (Some notable eruptions ended like this: Mudflows killed 25,000 in the 1985 Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia eruption and a Tsunami killed 36,000 in the 1883 Krakatau, Indonesia one).

In fact, half a billion people who live near volcanoes could certainly use a sensor-based warning network. And even travelers could benefit — just ask the airlines and passengers stranded by this summer's Eyjafjallajökull Volcano eruption.

British geologists think silicon carbide sensors might be the answer. Silicon carbide is known for its ability to resist harsh environments and can operate in conditions where traditional electronics can't function.

Theoretically, the sensors could sniff out changes in the gas levels like carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide and could send the information to a remote location. Data collection could be made in real-time, instead of waiting for post-eruption information to flow out.

The new type of sensor developed by Newcastle University scientists can operate in temperatures as high as the inside of a jet engine.

If you think about it, we have sensors set up to warn of impending earthquakes. (Laptops could even be useful sensors for earthquakes). But there's not a similar system that can do the same for volcanoes.

The senors could be used in many other situations — to monitor activity happening in the subway or patrol suspected nuclear attack sites.

The Newcastle researchers want to make their silicon carbide sensors the size of an iPhone so that it can sniff out what's going on in power plants and aircraft engines.

Another way of watching volcanic activity is also underway in Italy: The Campi Flegrei Deep Drilling Project plans on drilling into a volcano to install sensors. But the thought of doing that is unsettling to some protesters.

So, dropping senors into volcanoes in a less invasive manner might be the way to go.

via Popular Science

Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

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