A mature student’s undergraduate dissertation could help in the development of a volcanic ash early warning system for aircraft.

A casual conversation over coffee with Lancaster Environment Centre volcanologists Dr Steve Lane and Dr Jennie Gilbert was the catalyst for the dissertation by former aircraft technician and manager Bryce Malton.

“We were having a discussion about using electrostatic charges on aircraft as a means of measuring volcanic ash and I put forward some alternative ideas because of my background doing avionics and electrics on civil aircraft,” says Bryce.

“Steve and Jennie specialise in volcanic plumes, particularly electrostatic behaviour around the plumes, and they said would you consider looking into this as your undergraduate dissertation. It was a natural combination of our expertise”, says Bryce, 52, who left school at 18 with two poor A levels.

“The eventual aim is to produce a prototype sensor we can bolt onto an aircraft as a warning for aircraft crew that they are entering an area of volcanic ash. My dissertation was a ‘proof of needs’ study to show there is a need for such an instrument.”

Current warning systems ineffective

Bryce’s research showed that, while there are already warning systems out there, they are not effective in the first 15 hours after a volcano erupts and can still be inaccurate thereafter.  Most are based on modelling from satellite pictures, which are affected by cloud cover and whether a satellite is in the right place at the time, and very few are able to produce live information.

“If you look at the Icelandic eruption, there were multiple instruments modelling that plume: the UK MET office were producing warnings of where they thought ash was but studies after show these were sometimes out by a factor of two.”

Talking to air crew, Bryce found that what they wanted was a warning system attached to the aircraft which would tell them what evasive action to take. Any sensor needs to measure where an aircraft is in a plume, because the density of the ash varies quickly with changes in height.

Finally Bryce wanted to show there was a way you could measure ash using electrostatic charges.

“This is Steve’s area and there is still uncertainty about how exactly we can do this: we don’t want to mix up ice on an aircraft with ash for instance because the avoiding action needed would be different. There is some evidence that we could use the fact that different materials charge in different ways and that each has its own unique electrostatic signature, as do each pair of materials.  What I did was lay out this principle.”

Study abroad

Bryce, who had opted for a Study Abroad programme, spent his second year at the University of Iceland which offered an extra dimension to his studies.

“I would be studying volcanology one day, and then going out on a field trip sitting next to a volcano and picking up volcanic materials. That’s an experience that can’t be beaten.”

For Bryce, who hadn’t studied formally for 30 years, it was a risk covering such an ambitious project, made worse when his mother was diagnosed as terminally ill a few months before the dissertation was due in.

“I was dealing with that and realised I wasn’t going to make the deadline. The department was fantastic and gave me an extension.”

Despite the other demands on his time, Bryce was awarded a first class degree in Earth and Environmental Science this summer and won the prize for the best BSc dissertation, which he hopes to publish.

An academic career

“I start a Masters by Research at Lancaster this autumn which will be a proof of concept of sensor technology. Then hopefully, if we can attract industry funding, I will expand it to a PhD project with the end vision being a prototype that we test on an aircraft,” Bryce explains.

Bryce now hopes to pursue an academic career, which is not what he expected when he gave up a successful career to study at the Lancaster Environment Centre three years ago, slightly worried that he would be viewed as an “old duffer”.

“I’ve had a wonderful experience because I’ve actively engaged with the department. I got to know Steve and Jennie through this project and everybody’s been really helpful. The study abroad year was fantastic. The other students have been very open minded: they didn’t see me as the old duffer and the department really appreciates the experience mature students bring.”

Bryce finished his undergraduate degree not just with a prize and new career ambitions, but also with a new partner, Claire, who he met at Lancaster.