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Extreme Technology

By withstanding the temperatures found inside a volcano, new sensors could venture where no technology has gone before.

volcano

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We have long designed technologies to withstand forces intolerable to humans. From deep-sea submersibles to space probes, we’ve often called upon technology to collect intelligence for us in hard-to-reach places. But what happens when those hard-to-reach places are so extreme that it causes our best-made technology to melt, crack, or even explode?

The Centre for Extreme Environment Technology, at the U.K.’s Newcastle University, is tasked with finding those answers. Researchers at the center are pioneering radio transmitters and other devices that could withstand temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius, the university announced on its website today. They have succeeded in building the components and are now working on fashioning them into an iPhone-sized device strong enough to withstand some of the world’s harshest environments–the inside of a jet engine, the periphery of an explosion, or even the recesses of a volcano.

“If someone sets off a bomb on the underground,” said Alton Horsfall, one of the Newcastle Engineers, “this will still sit on the wall and tell you what’s going on.”

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The key to producing such resilient technologies is in the materials used. Most electronics use silicon, which works well up to about 175 degree Celsius, Horsfall recently told The Engineer. “Then it goes horribly wrong,” he said, “whereas silicon carbide”–which his group has been experimenting with–“runs to around 600°C on a practical level.” His team has already experimented with temperatures considerably higher than that. Ultimately, technologies like these–which can measure subtle changes in gas levels, among other things, and relay that information in realtime wirelessly–could someday save lives, for instance by warning of an impending volcanic eruption.

The research remains at an early stage. Newcastle is now looking for funding to develop a prototype device for one particular application, and will presumably soon be re-entering the extreme environment of competitive grant writing.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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