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Researchers Create Homemade Lava -- For Science, Of Course

Molten rock and water can be an explosive combination. Scientists are trying to learn why.

25/06/2016 11:07 AM AEST | Updated June 28, 2016 02:27

When molten rock mixes with water, it can do peculiar, unpredictable, even violent things.

In hopes of better understanding such interactions, geologists at the State University of New York at Buffalo have begun perfecting their own recipe for lava.

As it turns out, man-made lava is nearly as mesmerizing as the real thing. 

The university's lava-making operation is among the largest in the world. Each batch involves putting 10 gallons of basaltic rock into a high-powered furnace, heating it to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and pouring it out, the school said in a statement.

Once the process is perfected, likely later this summer, researchers will begin exposing the molten rock to water. A university spokeswoman told The Huffington Post in an email that the experiments will "provide a rare, close-up view of the interplay between lava and water, yielding insight on what conditions cause explosions."

Alison Graettinger, a postdoctoral geology researcher at the university, said previous studies at Universität Würzburg in Germany used smaller amounts of man-made lava, about the size of a coffee cup.

"No one has done it before on this scale, and these lava-water interactions aren’t well understood," Graettinger said in a statement. "Sometimes when water and lava meet, the lava will appear to completely ignore the water. Sometimes, the lava will cool and form distinctive cracking patterns, or form interesting shapes like pillow lavas. And sometimes, the reaction is violent. Why?"

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is being conducted at a field station in Ashford, New York.

Large explosive events don't happen often, but prove lava-water interactions can pose serious threats, according to project leader Ingo Sonder, a research scientist at the university’s Center for GeoHazards Studies. In 2010, for instance, an eruption at Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano turned explosive after magma melted a large amount of ice.

"As geologists," Sonder said in a statement, "we want to understand the conditions that generate explosions — how much water do you need? How much time?"

Basically, these lava experiments are a lot more complicated than baking soda and vinegar.

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