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University of Bayreuth, Press Release Nr. 062/2022 - 29 April 2022

A nanoscale look at volcanic eruptions: Bayreuth geoscientist receives European research grant

Dr. Danilo Di Genova from the Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry & Geophysics (BGI) at the University of Bayreuth has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant by the European Research Coun­cil. His NANOVOLC project will receive funding of around two million euros over the next five years. It investigates magma viscosity, which is of great relevance for assessing hazards that may emerge from active volcanoes around the world.

The research focuses on nano-crystals called “nanolites” in molten magma. They can have a strong influence on the explosiveness of volcanoes' eruption and thus on the production of volcanic ash. This has in turn a strong impact both on the habitability of the areas surrounding volcanoes and away from them through the ash transport in the atmosphere.

Volcanic eruption in Cumbre Vieja, La Palma

For volcano researchers, it was puzzling until a few years ago why similar magmas are erupted in very different ways from active volcanoes despite similar physico-chemical conditions. In some cases, there are explosive eruptions and a strong, rapidly spreading ash column; in other cases, effusion of lava flows from the volcano. Only a few years ago, nanoscale studies concluded that small crystals with high concentrations of iron and titanium can have a significant influence on volcanic eruptions and their consequences. In particular, they affect the magma viscosity and control its fragmentation turning the magma into ash. Because of their diameter of a few nanometers, these crystals are also known as nanolites.

"Despite numerous pioneering case studies, we are currently still far from understanding the relationship between the formation of nanolites and the type of volcanic eruptions. Current models of magma dynamics do not incorporate the effect of nanolites on magma dynamics and do not allow reliable probabilistic predictions of eruption events. This is where the ERC project NANOVOLC comes in. At the BGI, we want to perform magma decompression experiments and develop a numerical model that will allow us to study both magma dynamics during volcanic eruptions and the probability of a given event occurring in a volcanic area. This is essential for volcanic hazard mitigation," says Dr. Danilo Di Genova.

Dr. Danilo Di Genova preparing a high-temperature high-pressure experiment at BGI using basaltic magma.

In his research work, the award-winning German-Italian researcher will collaborate with other geoscientists at BGI. Together with Prof. Dr. Hans Keppler, he is going to develop a novel apparatus that will enable special experiments on the fragmentation of magma. Dr. Gerd Steinle-Neumann and Dominic Langhammer M.Sc. are partners in research aimed at applying artificial intelligence to magma viscosity modelling. “The knowledge gained in our project may be of great interest not only for the study of volcanism, but also in terms of materials science. For example, companies in the glass industry working to optimize glass-ceramics will also be able to benefit from our research data on nanolites," Di Genova says.

Around 550 volcanoes are currently active worldwide. The roughly 500 million people living in their vicinity are therefore exposed to a constantly smouldering hazard. Particularly great hazards are posed by explosive, ash-rich volcanic eruptions caused by the fragmentation of the magma accumulated in the volcanic channels. A comprehensive understanding of mag-ma fragmentation and explosive behavior of volcanoes is therefore critical to assessing im-pending hazards early and realistically. This, in turn, enables the planning of effective emer-gency and protective measures, including temporary evacuation of the residential population in the vicinity of volcanoes.

Dr. Danilo Di Genova
Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry & Geophysics (BGI)
University of Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0)921 55 3718