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Super-tough wireless sensors 'to be dropped into volcanoes'

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Topflight engineers based in Newcastle have hit upon a radical plan for warning of volcanic eruptions. They intend to build a heatproof sensor unit which can be dropped into a volcano's caldera and wirelessly transmit data to monitoring stations despite being possibly immersed in molten rock.

"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," explains Dr Alton Horsfall of Newcastle uni's Centre for Extreme Environment Technology.

"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."

The Newcastle boffins say their silicon-carbide electronics would be used to measure small changes in the levels of certain gases within the caldera - for instance the dioxides of sulphur and carbon - so providing early warning of possible eruptions.

According to Horsfall and his fellow nails-tough tech developers, their carbide electronics can keep working up to temperatures of 900°C. This is actually sufficient to withstand immersion in some lavas/magmas, though by no means all. In any case it's difficult to see how any wireless signal could be transmitted through molten minerals, so presumably the inventors are talking more about locating their kit in places within a caldera which - although extremely hot - are not enough so to actually melt rock.

In any case the volcano application is merely the headliner that the boffins have chosen to publicise their inventions. The Centre for Extreme Environment Tech has wider aspirations including the use of their kit in nuclear reactors, underwater, inside the blazing guts of jet engines or even in space.

"The situations we are planning to use our technology in means it’s not enough for the electronics to simply withstand extremes of temperature, pressure or radiation – they have to continue operating absolutely accurately and reliably," says Prof Nick Wright, Newcastle pro-vicechancellor. It's well known that ionising radiation, for instance - as found in nuclear machinery and throughout space beyond Earth's protective magnetic field - is hell on regular electronics.

"Increasingly mankind is spreading out into harsher and more extreme environments as our population grows and we explore new areas for possible sources of energy and food in order to sustain it," says Wright.

"But with this comes new challenges and this is why research into extreme technologies is becoming ever more important."

There's more on extreme tech from Newcastle uni here. ®

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