The Threat of Volcanic Ash

May 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

The volcanic eruption in Iceland that brought the aviation industry to a standstill in April has raised new questions and kick-started new research. Thousands of travelers remain grounded and airplane companies are suffering great losses due to the threat of volcanic ash, now over Spain and Morocco. This has led engineers and researchers to consider whether there is an alternative technology that will allow jet engines to operate in such circumstances. Understanding the composition of volcanic ash could allow engineers to develop new technologies and eliminate the danger posed to jet engine aircraft.

In 1982 a British Airways flight suffered considerable damage and the airplane was almost lost due to the crew flying through a stretch on their flight path that was filled with volcanic ash. They were not aware that a volcano had erupted and that ash was being carried into their level of flight. All four engines stopped, leaving the aircraft to plummet for twelve minutes before the engines miraculously gained power again and the flight landed safely. Volcanic ash consists of pulverized rock that has glassy particles, and due to its dry composition and the fact that it is always moving, weather radars cannot pick up this change in the atmosphere. Jet engines rely on the air that is sucked in to cool the turbines, and when volcanic ash is pulled into the turbines, ducts are clogged up by the dust and this leads to overheating. As the heat of the engine increases, the glassy particles can also begin to melt, causing further damage to the engine.

Agencies, such as the FAA, or Federal Aviation Administration, are engaged in ongoing studies to determine the limit of engines that have taken in ash. Working in conjunction the European Union, agencies are sharing vital information with each other to find guidelines and solutions to the volcanic ash threat. Although it is not easy to determine what the yield on ash is for a jet engine, authorities hope that their research will assist them in creating safety measures for the future. For now, the aviation industry relies on the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers that were established by the International Civil Aviation Organization to prevent catastrophe and danger to aircraft.

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