A high-tech sensor that works in 1100 degree heat

A major challenge holding back the accurate prediction of volcanic eruptions is we don't really have the ability to put sophisticated monitoring equipment right in the heart of the hot magma. Now there's technology that thrives in such extreme heat.

The new technology is made out of silicon carbide electronics and is built to withstand the heat inside a jet engine. That's about 1100 degrees Fahrenheit, which means it could also operate deep underground, monitoring signs of potential volcanic eruptions. Built-in sensors could detect slight changes in carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which would clue in geologists to an approaching eruption.

Silicon carbide is hardier and more stable than ordinary silicon, and it has an added bonus - its unusual molecular structure gives it a very high radiation tolerance, which means it could also be useful at nuclear power plants. And jet engines aren't just a useful point of comparison - they're another extreme environment where real-time monitoring could be hugely useful in detecting disasters before they occur.

Engineers at the UK's Centre for Extreme Environment Technology at Newcastle University are currently working on fitting the silicon carbide chips into a device the size of an iPhone, giving it the portability needed to work in any of these situation.

Alton Horsfall, one of the project leaders, says better volcano monitoring is the most exciting application of the device, for fairly obvious reasons:

"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. 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."

Another leader of the project, Nick Wright, says the real achievement isn't just making a device that can survive such conditions. It's making a device that can thrive in such places:

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

[The Engineer]