Investigating volcano warnings and concrete that’s alive!

Could volcanoes warn us before they blow up? And could concrete be capable of repairing itself underground? These are two research projects that caught the imagination of student Angeline Thiri, who is working in our University Research and Knowledge Exchange Office.

You come across fascinating conversations in a university research office. “My love of volcanoes started from an early age.” And: “What if concrete can self-heal like a human body?”

This led to me speaking to a volcanologist and a civil engineer about their respective research at the University of Derby. Although the natures of their projects are completely different, their shared view of impacting the world is unmistakable.

I was intrigued with the idea of a volcano warning system and found the possibility of holistic concrete strangely creepy, as I imagined living breathing concrete underground like in a horror movie.

Refining the system

To get to the root of these stories, I first went to meet the academic leading the volcano project, who is searching for a more refined volcano warning system. In my favourite café at the Kedleston Road campus, surrounded by the bustle of espresso machine, clinking cups and chattering of people, I met Dr Katy Chamberlain, the geoscientist leading the project called NI MagmaStress.

Katy has a belief that, over time, we will be able to refine our predictions of when a volcano is going to erupt, as well as how long and how big the eruption will be. Her project is part of the bigger picture of this vision. And the UK’s volcanology community is one of the strongest in the world. Katy’s enthusiasm is obvious in the tone of her voice. She explains to me that, in an increasingly interconnected world, a volcanic eruption in one country can affect the whole world.

Creepy concrete?

After satisfying my curiosity with the volcano, and before my imagination of creepy living concrete ran out of control, I set about seeing Dr Omar Hamza, the Civil Engineer leading the project Geobacticon. Omar assured me that the concrete in question is nothing like what I have imagined.

What he and his team are working on could bring about concrete that can heal itself of damage like a living human body, not a mutated substance that comes alive when you get near it. There have already been cases of self-repairing concrete in air and water in a controlled lab environment. But his project looks at how the concrete would repair itself underground using bacteria.

Omar reckons that, over time, we will eventually be able to leave the inorganic substance of concrete in the ground to self-heal like an organism. He has taken inspiration from the human body. He believes that, if we can leave the concrete to repair itself, not only will we save the huge cost involved in repairing it, but we will also save the environment. Omar is excited about how much we would save in C02 (carbon dioxide) emissions by not having to use machines.

Tidal power

Global citizens

Listening to Omar, I can see the value of self-healing concrete straight away. Saving the cost and saving the planet are the two issues I hear often and can relate to easily. But, for someone living in the UK where there are no volcanoes, Katy’s vision of understanding volcanic eruptions seems a remote idea. I had to think hard to see its immediate value. Surely, it’s not our problem, right?

But Katy sees it differently. She thinks that we have a responsibility as a global citizen to share what we know and work collectively. She points out that an eruption in a remote part of the world could potentially affect each of us. If a volcanic eruption is large enough to produce ash in the sky, it will affect air travel. This can potentially affect our food supply as so much of what we eat these days is flown in from various parts of the world. I can immediately see the impact.

Finding funding

Both Katy and Omar managed to successfully secure funding: NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) – Global Partnership’s Seedcorn Fund 2018 and Marie Curie Individual Fellowship – Horizon 2020. Our University Knowledge Exchange and Research Office submitted the bids and helped with the preparation.

In the grand scheme of things, these two projects probably won’t make an immediate significant change but their results will be added to the collective international effort that will eventually bring about that very significant change. In time, we will refine our warning system for volcanoes, and have concrete that we can leave in the ground without having to worry about repairing it.

It is small scale research projects like these that bring about significant impact and make a permanent difference to how the world works and our survival as a species. The idea of volcanoes that warn us and living concrete that fixes itself underground might not be so fantastical after all.

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