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Making Lava

The Syracuse University Lava Project has used a number of different furnaces to make lava at temperatures of ~1200°C (2200°F). Some furnaces are most appropriate for making small to medium size (few meters long) lava flows (volume-limited flows). Blast furnaces are used for higher temperatures and making more continuous (hours long) lava flows (cooling limited flows).

This was the first furnace used for making lava at SU. The furnace is indoors and has a crucible that can hold about 100 lbs. of molten lava. The lava in the crucible is poured manually into an adjacent sand pouring pit or on to other surfaces. The project’s first lava flow experiments were done with this system.

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Bob Wysocki stirs lava in the floor furnace. A crucible like the one in the furnace is in the foreground.
Checking the lava in the floor furnace.
Manually poured crucible from the floor furnace.
Family of early experiments in the pouring pit at the Comstock Art Bldg.

This furnace is the work-horse of the project with more than 200 lava flow experiments and demonstrations to date. The used furnace, originally designed for work with metals, was modified by Upstate Refractory Services and Bob Wysocki specifically for making lava. The furnace is operated outside the Comstock Art Bldg on the Syracuse University campus. It is extremely versatile and allows for controlled temperatures and pouring rates for a wide variety of experiments. Reconfiguration of the heating system has allowed the furnace to become portable for lava flow demonstrations away from Syracuse University. The first off-site lava flows were produced in Death Valley, CA for a British documentary on planetary evolution.

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The tilt furnace before renovation in Montreal
The tilt furnace arrives in Syracuse.
Freshly renovated tilt furnace
Silicon carbide crucible that holds the molten lava inside the furnace. One crucible last for weeks of use, but much less if subjected to heating/cooling cycles.
Installing a crucible inside the Comstock Art Bldg.
Centering the crucible in the furnace.
The furnace toppled outside the Comstock Art Bldg when it rolled off its concrete slab. No permanent damage occurred.

Operations at SU

Checking the lava in the tilt furnace.
Bob Wysocki operating the tilt furnace for a lava flow experiment.
FLIR (infrared) image of the tilt furnace in action.
An early lava flow demonstration.
UAS (drone) view of the tilt furnace and operations outside the Comstock Art Bldg on the Syracuse University Campus.
Bob Wysocki supervises preparations for a lava flow experiment.
Lava flow experiment documented with various cameras and thermocouples by graduate students Chris Sant and James Farrell (on ladder).
End of a lava flow experiment.

Death Valley Operations

Off-loading the tilt furnace from a container shipped from SU to Death Valley, CA.
Setting up the tilt furnace in the desert.
Ready to make lava in the desert.
Propane tank delivered for fuel for the furnace.
Furnace in operation in Death Valley.

This furnace, typically used for metal, uses coke (high-carbon, distilled coal) with a powerful air stream to generate very high temperatures and rapid rates of melting. It can produce a slow, constant flow of lava for hours which is very useful for some types of experiments.

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Old lava is added to the top of the furnace to produce a continuous lava stream.
Sampling lava from the blast furnace.
Coke used to fuel the blast furnace.

This large blast furnace build by Bob Wysocki is about 30 feet tall and requires a large framework and fork lift for feeding lava rock into the top. This furnace is capable of melting about 1 ton of lava per hour to make very large continuous lava flows. 

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This set up shows the furnace and a 8-ton lava flow created overnight in downtown Toronto in 2015. Additional lava for melting is stored in bins to the right.
Vertical UAS (drone) view of the blast furnace and the lava flow. The furnace remained hot for hours after the flow demonstration.

Lavas in nature can have a wide range of compositions that contribute to the diverse behavior and volcanic landforms that occur in nature. Although the Lava Project has experimented with a number of different lava compositions, nearly all of our lava flows are composed of basalt, by far the most common lava type on Earth. The starting material for nearly all of our lava flows is ancient basalt (~1.2 Billion years old) from lava flows that were erupted in the Mid-Continent Rift. Our preferred material comes from the Dresser Trap Rock Quarry in Polk Co., Wisconsin. It comes from the Chengwatana Formation, part of the regionally extensive Keweenawan Basalts (For more information see: Wirth, K.R., J.D. Vervoort, and Z.J. Naiman, The Chengwatana Volcanics, Wisconsin and Minnesota: Petrogenesis of the southernmost volcanic rocks exposed in the Midcontinent Rift, Can. J. Earth Sci. 34, 536-548, 1997).

This material is actually a metabasalt (greenschist facies) with mineralogically bound water that aids as a natural flux, but that evaporates as the lava is heated in the furnace. In the future, we plan to extend our experiments to other compositions including basaltic andesites, andesites, komatiites, and carbonatites. 

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Geological map of Wisconsin. Purple units in the NW are basalts of the 1.2 Ga Mid-Continent Rift.
Geological map of part of NW Wisconsin showing the location of the Changwatana Basalts.
Hand specimen of the Dresser Trap Rock (Changwatana Basalt).
One-ton plastic bag of crushed basaltic starting material.
Several tons of basaltic starting material delivered to Syracuse University.
Crushed basaltic starting material.
Photomicrograph of altered basalt used as starting material. Image is about 1 cm across.

Experiments with lava can be configured under a very wide range of conditions. Some of the variables that we have experimented with include: the substrate that the lava flows over (steel sheet, steel trough, dry sand, wet sand, gravel, clay, snow, ice, dry ice or into water, etc.). Other experiments vary slope, temperature, vesicularity, crystallinity, and may include barriers that divert or arrest the lava. Lava can also be poured into a range of vessels (cool or heated) to study interactions with different materials (for example ‘xenoliths’ of various compositions. Temperatures are measured with a FLIR (infrared) camera for the lava surface and thermocouples are inserted into different parts of the flows. A range of video and still photographic systems have been used to document the behavior of the lava and create images for further analyses. 

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Drone view of a lava flow experiment at the Comstock Art Bldg.
Preparing the lava flow bed.
Smooth, dry sand slope ready for lava flow.
Dry sand slope with barriers ready for lava flow.
Lava pour on steel ramp.
Lava flow in steel trough.
Preparing an ice ramp for a lava flow.
Ice mold ready for a lava flow.
Lava flow melting through snow ramp.
Hand-held rack for small lava sample of dry ice.
Pouring lava into molds on hand-held rack.
Steel pots for small lava samples; infrared image on right.
Small water trough with J-shaped ceramic tube for lava flow under water.
Vertical view of large water tank for lava/water experiments.
Preparing large water tank for pillow lava experiment.
Lava flow with large bubbles entering large water tank.
Thermocouple probe measuring the temperature of lava.
Array of thermocouples and data loggers recording temperatures in small spatter samples.
FLIR (Forward-Looking Infrared) image of a lava flow with temperatures at various points.
Plain light (left) and infrared (right) images from a lava flow experiment.
Steel frame with multiple digital cameras for stereo imaging of a lava flow experiment.
DJI Phantom 3 Drone used for imaging and video of natural and experimental lava flows.