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Wibble, wobble, BOOM – volcanic jelly, anyone?

Jelly, food colouring and model volcanoes. Sounds like the perfect combination of fun for any seven-year-old wannabe scientist. Well, move over, kids: the grown-up researchers want a piece of the action, and they know where to get it.

The experts at Monash Uni’s Instrumentation and Technology Development Facility, or ITDF, can make mini-volcanoes to model the real thing – minus the exploding rock and ash clouds that make studying volcanoes in nature just that little bit dangerous.

The ITDF, one of the open-access Monash Research Technology Platforms (MRTP), is helping an international research team from the UK and Australia build scaled-down volcano models using jelly-filled tanks. Coloured water is injected to mimic magma, while a high-speed camera and laser capture the inner plumbing of the volcano as the magma speeds upwards through interconnected fractures called dykes and sills.

Professor Sandy Cruden, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University, says the models have revealed a significant and previously unknown drop in pressure when a rising vertical dyke stalls and begins to form a horizontal sill.

“A pressure drop can drive the release of dissolved gases, potentially causing the magma to explode and erupt,” he explains. It’s just like the sudden drop in pressure that happens when you take the lid off a shaken-up soda bottle – as the pressure drops, bubbles form and shoot out of the bottle in a fountain of foam.

It isn’t easy to study the geological processes that are happening deep below Earth’s surface. Researchers currently rely on satellites, ground deformation devices and seismometers to record magma movement and the likelihood of a volcanic eruption. But with more than 600 million people worldwide living near a volcano at risk of eruptive activity, it’s vital to learn more about volcano triggering mechanisms.

The modelling project at ITDF adds to our knowledge of volcano formation, helping researchers interpret what our planet is telling us about volcanic unrest. If we can understand Earth’s geological clues, authorities could warn people earlier, giving them more time to plan and get out safely.

The possibilities of modelling geological processes with jelly don’t stop at volcanoes. The ITDF’s team of electricians, machinists, programmers, designers and engineers also make jelly tanks to represent tectonic plate movement. At the moment, this hot research under the Red Sea: currently the one place on Earth where a new ocean plate is still forming.

ITDF’s expertise in building the tanks lies in their precision mechanical and electronic computer-aided design, materials fabrication, machining and building. And because they are part of the centrally managed MRTP, researchers and industry reps have streamlined access to this fee-for-service facility.