The bright orange lava that flows in Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano is breathtaking, but the cooled particles that end up in the Hamilton Analytical Lab are beautiful, too, to the scientists who analyze them for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
Lava has the bloom of youth by rock standards, being days rather than millions of years old. “The little crystals within the lava are extremely fresh and very pretty,” said Laureen Wagoner, the lab technician who analyzes the lava with senior lab technician Richard Conrey.
Hamilton has a contract with the U.S. Geological Survey to analyze the lava using the College’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, which enables Wagoner to see the crystals once the lava samples are prepared. Hamilton is one of a handful of colleges to have such an instrument. The College hired experts Conrey and Wagoner to run the lab housed in the Taylor Science Center.
Faculty, in particular geologists and archaeologists, and students use the spectrometer for their research, and the lab employs several students each semester, giving them hands-on experience that can prove useful in post-grad jobs or grad school.
The recent eruption of Kilauea began on Dec. 20, 2020, within Halema‘uma‘u crater at the summit of the volcano. USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists, who are monitoring the eruption, use the detailed chemical analysis of the recently erupted lava from the Hamilton lab to better understand the volcano, starting with how explosive the magma is.
The Hamilton technicians happily share their knowledge of the spectrometer and their findings with any student who is interested, although the pandemic meant none were available this winter as they analyzed the Kiilauea lava. Still, Conrey and Wagoner were excited to spot traces of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano deity whose home is Halema?uma?u, in the recent samples — figuratively speaking, of course.
They found “Pele’s hair,” which are very fine strings of glass made from cooled lava and sharp as needles. Conrey got poked. “I made the mistake of trying to use my fingers to move some of it along, and it resisted a bit,” he said. Pele’s hair is formed by the stretching of small drops of molten lava during eruption or flow, he explained. It's more common during an eruption when drops of lava thrown into the air are stretched and chilled as they leave the vent.
Wagoneer also noticed “Pele’s tears,” which are tiny, teardrop-shaped pieces of black volcanic glass. These are places along or at the ends of the hair that were chilled to glass before they were stretched.
“We love that stuff,” Conrey said.