Sensor can send back data from the heart of a volcano

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Chucking a radio transmitter into the heart of a volcano might seem a pretty fruitless endeavor. But a team at Newcastle University says it's developed a device that can withstand temperatures of up to 900 degrees C and which could provide early warning of an eruption.

Based on silicon carbide, says the team, the new sensors can withstand temperatures equal to the inside of a jet engine. They could be used to measure the subtle changes in the levels of key volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide and feed back real-time data to the surface.

The team also says that because it is more stable than silicon, silicon carbide has a high radiation tolerance, meaning the sensors could also be used in the nuclear industry.

The team has developed the necessary components and is now working to integrate them into a device about the size of a phone.

"At the moment we have no way of accurately monitoring the situation inside a volcano, and in fact most data collection actually goes on post-eruption. With an estimated 500 million people living in the shadow of a volcano this is clearly not ideal," says Newcastle's Dr Alton Horsfall.

"We still have some way to go but using silicon carbide technology we hope to develop a wireless communication system that could accurately collect and transmit chemical data from the very depths of a volcano."

Horsfall says the device has other uses, including power plants,  aircraft engines and as a tool for dealing with terror attacks. "If someone sets off a bomb on the underground, for example, this will still sit on the wall and tell you what's going on," says Dr Horsfall.

The team is also working on a micro Remotely-Operated Vehicle that can be used to feed back environmental data about coastlines. Another sensor project is through metal communications, transmitting a signal through almost 10cm of steel.