Super-tough wireless sensors 'to be dropped into volcanoes'
Anakin Skywalker? Big girls' blouse
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. ®
Bring back the fast breader
One of the problems with fast breeder nuclear reactors was the difficulty of instrumenting the primary cooling system, which consisted of liquid sodium (boiling point 883C), so this research sounds idea.
Fast breeder reactors are able to turn the limited stocks of naturally occurring uranium in to vastly more nuclear fuel, which can be used in more conventional reactors. Demand for nuclear power is increasing rapidly to produce CO2 free electricity, and without this technology uranium supplies will limit its potential.
This is an area in which Britain had lead the world, but we've now abandoned, and we are even set to demolish the landmark dome of the pioneering Doonray facility.
Other applications - Venus?
Will this be enough to get a Venus lander to last more than a few minutes?
Major flaw: readings may be hampered by thetans
According to Scientology doctrine, that fine author L Ron Hubbard says loads of bad thetans (or something) have been dropped in there.
PS - You need to fork over like £100k to be privvy to that bit of info (OT3), so please send your cheques to the "Church"
Xenu (pronounced /ˈziːnuː/), also Xemu, was, according to the founder of Scientology and science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the dictator of the "Galactic Confederacy" who, 75 million years ago, brought billions of his people to Earth in a DC-8-like spacecraft, stacked them around volcanoes and killed them using hydrogen bombs. Official Scientology dogma holds that the essences of these many people remained, and that they form around people in modern times, causing them spiritual harm. Members of the Church of Scientology widely deny or try to hide the Xenu story."