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Designing Wireless Sensors To Be Dropped Into Volcanoes 126

Thorfinn.au writes with this quote from El Reg: "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.'"
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Designing Wireless Sensors To Be Dropped Into Volcanoes

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  • Why? (Score:4, Funny)

    by PPH (736903) on Monday September 20, 2010 @12:34PM (#33638584)
    Have we run out of virgins already?
    • Re:Why? (Score:5, Funny)

      by MyLongNickName (822545) on Monday September 20, 2010 @12:41PM (#33638678) Journal

      On Slashdot?! Certainly you jest.

      • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

        by eclectro (227083)

        On Slashdot?! Certainly you jest.

        Female virgin. Idiot.

    • Clearly just the ugly ones. No sense in throwing the easy-on-the-eyes ones into a volcano, eh?

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by PPH (736903)
        The ugly ones go to the martyrs.
        • * Guinness Guys Commercial Voice* BRILLIANT!

        • by KiloByte (825081)

          You mean, if you blow yourself and a bunch of other denomination mosque goers with a shahid's belt, you end up with 72 uglies? Good to know!

          • by PPH (736903)
            Of course. The volcano god has recourse if the sacrifice is not satisfactory. For the guy with the bomb belt, there's no refund. Where would you spend your best virgins?
        • by Coren22 (1625475)

          Naa, that's for the nuns to take care of. :)

    • Re:Why? (Score:4, Funny)

      by TrisexualPuppy (976893) on Monday September 20, 2010 @01:00PM (#33638996)
      Forget the virgins. I'm still looking for the unexploded nuclear bombs dropped from the DC-8-like spacecraft.

      I'm sooooo close to OT7, just one more!
      • by Jurily (900488)

        I'm sooooo close to OT7, just one more!

        You don't have to farm, there's plenty in the AH.

    • by sznupi (719324)

      Well... [wikipedia.org]

      So we at least won't run out of dolhins? (it's a good time to save them while trying to launch the probe apparently, as in "The Devil's Window")

      Also, it might help unciver lost treasures Black Beard the pirate... ("Greed For a Pirate's Dream")

  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Monday September 20, 2010 @12:35PM (#33638592)
    Finally, Scientology will be vindicated!
  • This is just the government trying to "pre-bug" those granite slabs right from the quarry.

  • I know a few netgear routers I'd love to punt into a volcano.
  • I don't think so (Score:3, Informative)

    by seven of five (578993) on Monday September 20, 2010 @12:40PM (#33638664)
    Even if the package is heat-proof, the electronics are going to fry [wikipedia.org].
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Not with advanced oven-mitt technologies! The precious, and every so finicky, electronic components will be as cool as cucumbers in a summer salad!

    • by robot256 (1635039)
      What you need to do is immerse the main part of the electronics in a large vat of parafin and liquid nitrogen that will boil off rapidly but last long enough for the sensor to send back some data.
      • by JTsyo (1338447)
        Thin the idea is to leave them there to warn when the volcano has a change in its characteristics. Of course I didn't RTFA.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by idontgno (624372)
        Their in-depth chemical analysis of the lava in the volcanic caldera will reveal startling amounts of hydrocarbon and nitrogen gas. Someone will pin global warming on this, attempting to counter anthropogenic GW. Hilarity will ensue.
    • If the package is heat-proof, then the temperature of the electronics will stay within its operating range and the device will function normally. Magma is only 1300-2400F.
    • If you RTFA, they mentioned that they're going to be using a different-than-standard electronic technology based on silicon carbide rather than silicon. Silicon carbide does not decompose until 2730C, per Wikipedia, wereas the Wiki article you mention states that "most" magma is around 1300C or less.

      What I wonder is if you make a conventional CPU out of SiC, you can operate it at a far higher clock because it won't melt itself, thus enabling high performance CPUs or perhaps 3D integration.


      • by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Monday September 20, 2010 @01:25PM (#33639400) Homepage Journal
        I'm more curious how they plan to power such a device, and how they plan to wirelessly transmit signals through molten rock.
        • by Shakrai (717556) *

          I'm more curious how they plan to power such a device

          Would a TEG [wikipedia.org] work?

          • by jandrese (485)
            Anything that's a heat engine (which account for most every way we know to generate power today) won't work because a heat engine requires both a hot side and a cold side. They'll have plenty of hot, but finding a cold side when you're immersed in magma is not going to be easy.

            TEGs require a cool side as well, so they won't work.
        • by KiloByte (825081)

          They'll use a token ring [wikipedia.org].

        • Those were my questions as well. I wonder if they could leverage the energy in the molten rock somehow. It will be swimming in a sea of energy.

          And maybe I've heard too much technobabble over the years, but doesn't molten rock have its own magnetic fields?
      • by 0123456 (636235)

        What I wonder is if you make a conventional CPU out of SiC, you can operate it at a far higher clock because it won't melt itself, thus enabling high performance CPUs or perhaps 3D integration.


        I'm not quite sure that I really want my laptop's CPU running at 2500C under load...

      • Running Crysis with a literally red-hot CPU inside the case? I love this idea! :)
      • If you RTFA, they mentioned that they're going to be using a different-than-standard electronic technology based on silicon carbide rather than silicon. Silicon carbide does not decompose until 2730C

        Silicon carbide capacitors? Resistors? No copper or solder anywhere?
        • See thats what I'm wondering. All this talk of SiC is hardly making me wonder how they missed the obvious details like these. Unless they thought they were too boring to mention. In which case they arent pandering to their audience... science nerds love that stuff.

      • by Muad'Dave (255648)

        High power electronic components [wikipedia.org] are already made from/with SiC. Gallium nitride [wikipedia.org] has taken over the LED market from SiC, but it's still used. The problem with defects they note in the SiC article are probably too great to manage across a typical CPU-sized wafer.

    • FTA:

      According to Horsfall and his fellow nails-tough tech developers, their carbide electronics can keep working up to temperatures of 900C. This is actually sufficient to withstand immersion in some lavas/magmas, though by no means all.

      Apparently they aren't using Silicon based electronics so they don't need to keep the sensor that cool (at least from a silicon point of view). But even if the electronics can handle it I'm still not entirely sure what they would use to power it all (Sodium Nickel Chloride battery typically work between 270 and 350C, other molten salt batteries used in missile systems typically operate between 400-550C).

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      They're collecting data on the way down though the air. I'm pretty sure you can't transmit through lava anyway; once they hit the surface, they're toast.
    • by slick7 (1703596)

      Even if the package is heat-proof, the electronics are going to fry [wikipedia.org].

      What a chance to test layered aerogel.

    • The whole point of the story is to make the electronics heat-proof. Apparently silicon-carbide electronics can function at much higher temperatures than ordinary silicon.
    • You need to make them out of Steel--or Bauxite.

  • Bobby Jindal mocked volcano monitoring shortly before the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and some other one in the US. No, can't find the name of the US one right now. But this was after Obama's first State of the Union Address.

    • by khallow (566160)
      I still get tear-eyed thinking of those evil, Republican governors mocking our delicate, sensitive volcanoes. You can't expect one to perform under those circumstances.
    • As much as I love poking fun at conservative politicians, the guy had a point. He was speaking out against volcano monitoring as part of an economic stimulus package, not as part of the general budget. He was using it as a valid example of how special interest groups (in this case, some researchers who happened to have contacts in a senator's office) had managed to earmark some of the stimulus for things that would do very little to increase consumer spending.

      • Then he should have said so: "Whatever merit these earmarks might have, but it is irresponsible to promote funding for them on grounds of stimulus."

        Instead, he trivialized the idea wholesale by saying [nytimes.com]:

        ... their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes ... $140 million for something called volcano monitoring.

        Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.[bold added]


  • It's dolomite, baby! The mineral that won't cop out when the heat is all about.

    - Professor Farnsworth [wikipedia.org]
  • by surmak (1238244) on Monday September 20, 2010 @12:46PM (#33638764)
    volcano information recorder going into netherworld
  • Next stop: Venus? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RobertB-DC (622190) * on Monday September 20, 2010 @12:47PM (#33638790) Homepage Journal

    Venus, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead, has proven a tough nut to crack for probes hoping to return information about its awesomely hellish surface. But if we're talking about a small probe that can transmit while bobbing around like a cork in a lake of liquid rock... well, mere "lead-melting" heat should be a walk in the park for that little critter.

    Send a craft with a few hundred of these guys in its hold, drop 'em on the surface, and find out what's going on with our evil-twin-sister planet. I especially want to know what's going on with the Venusian highlands, where there seems to be a radar-reflecting "frost" of heavy metals [bbc.co.uk] coating the ground. Even if all these probes can tell us is how blisteringly hot it is, that's got to tell us *something* about the environment. Venus sounds like a metal-ore refinery, and I'd love for someone to decide that it's worth a few (hundred) billion bucks to go get some of that Unobtanium (or whatever) and bring it back to Earth.

    • Science reporting at its best. I especially liked this quote:

      The only way to glimpse what lies beneath its opaque clouds is by radar, and several missions have carried our radar surveys from orbit, principally the Magellan probe which operated from 1990 to 1994.

      It's not like we have pictures from the surface of Venus [mentallandscape.com] or anything...

      That goes for your post as well. While Venus is a fascinating planet in many ways, and I too would like to see more probes sent to it, your post comes across as crackpottery:


      • Being a space exploration fan. I'm surprised I haven't seen that site before. Thanks for the link. [ Already knew about the photos though. But his new versions are nice. ]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mbone (558574)

      Venus is 425 C (or so), and these are rated up to 900 C, so they absolutely should work on Venus.

      Of course, this is not new. From a description of the Soviet Venera landers [mentallandscape.com] :

      "By the time of Venera-13 and 14, a surprising amount of complex equipment was simply installed outside the pressure hull, exposed to the intensely hostile surface conditions. By this time, Soviet engineers had developed new heat-resistant materials and electronics that were comfortable in this working environment."

      • IIRC, I believe it was not just the extreme heat, but the pressure and extremely corrosive atmosphere that make Venus so incredibly inhospitable. In other words, just because the sensors can stand the heat of a volcano does not necessarily mean they can withstand the atmospheric pressure and corrosive atmosphere of Venus.
    • Umm, ok... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by sean.peters (568334)

      Venus sounds like a metal-ore refinery, and I'd love for someone to decide that it's worth a few (hundred) billion bucks to go get some of that Unobtanium (or whatever) and bring it back to Earth.

      Yeah, it would be cool for someone to decide that. Trouble is, it's almost certainly not true. Someone did the math here on Slashdot once before (in the context of mining Mars) and came to the conclusion that even if there were bricks of solid platinum lying about on the surface of Mars, it wouldn't be economically

  • SPECTRE's not gonna like this... Where will they hide their rockets?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SPECTRE.jpg [wikipedia.org]
  • how could anything dense enough to keep molten rock out be permeable enough to let wireless signals escape?

    i've seen amazing things, so i'm not going to say it's impossible... but landing on the moon is cake in comparison.

  • I think the more interesting aspect of what they are proposing isn't so much that they're building a super-durable sensor rig that can withstand the heat of liquid magma, but rather how they propose to transmit through several feet of liquid hot rock. They must pack one hell of a powerful transmitter into the probe.

    • Or an extremely sensitive receiver near the volcano edge. Perhaps using extremely low frequency signals to get through the dense molten/solid rock? Slow as hell bitrate though =(

      • Transmitting signals wirelessly through ocean water presents many of the same difficulties. There is already a very well developed technology for doing this based on sound. The transmitters are usually trivial to build. The tough part is the receiver because in order to get high data rates, you have to go to great lengths to compensate for extreme multipath distortion (echoes).
        • There is already a very well developed technology for doing this based on sound.

          Sure, there absolutely is... in water. Doing the same thing in magma: not so well developed. All the tech we have for doing sonar and underwater comms would melt at these temperatures, and it's not clear what substitute materials you could use that would survive. This would require a major amount of engineering research to figure out, and I doubt anyone could stomach the cost.

          And even if you could figure that out, the sonic envi

          • by DrJimbo (594231)
            I will agree with you that creating transducers that can take the heat might require new engineering. ISTM almost everything inside their probe is going to require new engineering.

            And even if you could figure that out, the sonic environment within the magma lake has got to be terrible - weird thermal gradients, high background noise, the multipath effects you mention... it's a very hard problem.

            As I said before, even though this is a hard problem, it has already been solved. I've conducted experiments doing real-time high speed underwater acoustic communication in extremely hostile shallow-water sonic environments filled with high background noise (ships), thermal gradients, and multipath. Actually, the distortion ca

    • Yeah - good point. I was wondering the same thing. It's one thing to dunk a sensor into molten rock and have it continue to function. It's another to get it to transmit through the heat/density/whatever above it. Hmm. On the plus side if they have anything that can convert heat to electricity they'll have power to spare (though they'll need to setup some kind of a heat differential somehow as best I understand thermodyanmics).

    • by Abstrackt (609015)
      Maybe they'd drop several at different points/heights and establish a mesh network. That way, as long as you could reach one sensor you could reach all or most of the sensors that are still operational.
    • by nomel (244635)

      Is molten rock all that conductive or much of a dielectric? If not, then it wouldn't be much different than passing a radio wave through several layers of concrete (walls). This will be much easier than trying to transmit out from water, a conductive and very dielectric material.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        Molten rock can have almost any chemical composition, just like solidified rock. So the answer is "yes".

      • by jbeaupre (752124)
        The short answer is magma is conductive. Look up melting a beer bottle in a microwave to learn why.
    • by Muad'Dave (255648)

      Why allow it to be buried? Why not design it to float on the magma, antenna up, sensors down. It would be pretty easy to do, since magma is very dense.

  • Why not just send Bender? After all, he's 40% dolemite!

  • I'm convinced that D-link has been making wireless gear for this for years. I frequently find that this may be the only use for their wireless equipment.

  • If they can power it with the heat available in the volcano. How does the thermo work out for running a cooler powered by ambient temperature and dumping the created heat back.
  • Wouldn't it be a treat if they discovered an Angel down there? Then we'd finally have a reason for emo teens to pilot mechs!
  • Misleading summary (Score:5, Informative)

    by Pinckney (1098477) on Monday September 20, 2010 @01:13PM (#33639214)

    According to Horsfall and his fellow nails-tough tech developers, their carbide electronics can keep working up to temperatures of 900C. 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.

    The caldera [wikipedia.org] is not a synonym for lava puddles. They're talking about putting a sensor in the caldera where it can detect gasses. It's not likely to be floating, much less submerged, and in fact that would presumably interfere with the mission of detecting various gasses.

    (I've only read the article, not the papers)

  • I guess Sauron should have thought of this.

  • Are you making your own semiconductors?
    I am curious if it is possible to use doping levels on the chips that would allow them to work at high temperatures while not necessarily working at room temperature.
    Perhaps you could get with NASA. I bet they would need something similar for exploring Venus.

    Britney Spears may be able to enlighten us on the subject. http://britneyspears.ac/lasers.htm [britneyspears.ac]
  • cooking sensors (Score:4, Interesting)

    by trb (8509) on Monday September 20, 2010 @01:23PM (#33639372)
    A hacker pal of mine worked at Tektronix in the late 70's, he told me this story. Tektronix made all kinds of oscilloscopes and electronic test gear. Apparently, they had a fancy special-purpose scope (cost maybe $10k/each), that they sold about 20 of each year. Suddenly, one company started ordering 4 or these scopes a month. This was surprising to Tektronix, and they had to change their inventory handling to deal with this change in demand. They decided to call the customer and figure out what they were using all these scopes for.

    Turns out the customer was one of the research labs (LANL or something, I forget which). They were measuring nuclear reactions, and using these scopes because they had a particular kind of sensor, but the tests were destructive, and every time they ran the experiment (once a week), they vaporized a scope. I think they figured out a way to sell the customer the sensor without wrapping it in all the fancy scopey packaging.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      Or maybe sell them a few extra feet of wire for the probe...

      Although, really, it sounds a bit apocryphal, like maybe you're misremembering it. Because I can't think of a situation where you'd want to have a scope that would be destroyed by the test, since to use a scope you need something to observe the scope, it being a scope, see...which means maybe what they weren't telling you is that a technician was being vaporized along with the scope, see...

      (And at the point where we figure out what the real deal i

      • by trb (8509)
        Measurement may be constrained by conditions like timing and signal levels (before amplification). Both of these can be solved by using a properly designed sensor that might live in a fancy plastic box, and it wouldn't be the same with a few extra feet of wire. (Would you put a few extra feet of wire between a motherboard and an in-circuit emulator?)
        • by blair1q (305137)

          Well, uh, your average ICE/DAS/Logic Analyzer has about 8 feet of wire between it and the mobo. 8 feet of excruciatingly calibrated wire that can cost thousands of dollars per ribbon cable.

          But the thing here seems to be that they're using a scope. The point of a scope is it has a specialized visual readout (inimitably so in the 70s before the advent of LCD scopes, PC-based metrology, and networked everything). And I can't see a reason to do that in an environment where the scope could be damaged, since a

  • by durrr (1316311)
    Lava-Cooled computer with wireless connection, who said we don't live in the future.
  • Unobtanium
  • What could possibly go wrong?
  • Great! Now we will have a "you're going to die in 30 seconds" sensor to go along with the "replace engine" indicator light in our cars!!

  • Just watch episode 15 of season 1 of seaQuest... I'm pretty sure all your questions will be answered.
  • Did they consider the direction of the flow of molten rock? It will be like trying to drop a pea into a gushing fire hydrant.

    If they want something that will survive being covered by lava, they could try tantalum hafnium carbide.

    Or, alternatively, they could use dolomite.....

  • What might a heat proof container let an instrument measure? I'm guessing temp is out of the question.

You can bring any calculator you like to the midterm, as long as it doesn't dim the lights when you turn it on. -- Hepler, Systems Design 182