Lava Flows On College Campus, Saving Tesla’s Lab | September 10, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 37 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 37 | p. 72 | Newscripts
Issue Date: September 10, 2012

Lava Flows On College Campus, Saving Tesla’s Lab

Department: Newscripts
Keywords: lava, marshmallows, basalt, land art, Nikola Tesla, Wardenclyffe, The Oatmeal, crowd funding
Some like it hot: Wysocki (left) and student Phillip Evans pour lava from a blast furnace.
Credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Karson
Bob Wysocki (left), a sculptor at Syracuse University, and student Phillip Evans pour basaltic lava from a coke-fired blast furnace.
Some like it hot: Wysocki (left) and student Phillip Evans pour lava from a blast furnace.
Credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Karson

Toasting marshmallows over a campfire is so last year. What’s trending now? Toasting marshmallows over a lava flow.

That’s something that kids and adults alike get to do on the campus of Syracuse University (SU), thanks to geologist Jeffrey A. Karson and sculptor Robert Wysocki. The pair started the SU Lava Project a few years ago, when Wysocki had the idea of creating a scientifically accurate lava-flow field the size of a baseball diamond—a huge piece of land art that would enable people to experience a volcano without all that pesky traveling.

When Wysocki brought his idea to Karson, “it sounded completely crazy and exciting to me,” the geologist tells Newscripts. One thing led to another, and now Karson, Wysocki, and a team of researchers at SU frequently pour half-ton quantities of molten lava in a campus parking lot. They do so not only to help bring the sculptor’s vision to life but also to learn more about lava flows. And they often turn their experiments into outreach events, inviting the public to watch, ask questions, and, of course, toast marshmallows.

The team members get their lava-making material from northwestern Wisconsin, where lava flows deposited basalt 1.1 billion years ago. They then load the crushed basalt—a silicate full of elements such as iron and magnesium—into a gas-fired tilt furnace and heat it to more than 1,200 °C.

When they pour the lava, Wysocki and the group alter parameters such as flow rate, silica content, and temperature to study the melt’s behavior.

“There’s a huge education opportunity here,” Karson contends. “Even though you can see lava flows on the Discovery Channel,” he says, “there’s nothing like actually being there.”

Tesla: The Internet loves him.
Credit: Library of Congress
Image of Nikola Tesla
Tesla: The Internet loves him.
Credit: Library of Congress

Elsewhere in the Empire State, another science education opportunity is currently electrifying the masses. An Internet campaign is under way to purchase the only remaining laboratory of Nikola Tesla, the father of alternating current, and turn it into a museum in his honor.

A nonprofit called the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe has been trying for some time to acquire Tesla’s workshop and the 16 wooded acres it sits on. Located on Long Island, the Wardenclyffe site is now owned by photography company Agfa Corp. and has a list price of $1.6 million.

Recently, though, the Tesla Science Center realized it needed to step up its efforts. “We had heard that there had been inquiries into the property,” says Jane Alcorn, president of the nonprofit. An $850,000 matching grant from New York State, which the organization had secured earlier, was also about to expire.

So Alcorn posted a plea on the nonprofit’s Facebook page for donations and help. Tesla fan and cartoonist Matthew Inman came to the rescue by featuring a comic on his website,The Oatmeal, humorously calling on people and corporations to donate money to the cause. Within six or seven hours of the comic’s posting on Aug. 15, Alcorn says, the Tesla Science Center had received about a quarter of a million dollars via its page on the crowd-funding website Indiegogo (

When Newscripts went to press, the campaign had already raised more than $1.1 million. “I really think this is unprecedented,” Alcorn says. Tesla was an inventor who didn’t commercialize his work and didn’t get credit for many of the astounding things he did, she says. He was “driven by a passion for discovery,” she adds, and people want to see his genius rewarded.

With the matching grant, the nonprofit now has enough money to make a bid on Wardenclyffe. But it’s still raising funds, which will go toward building the museum.


Lauren Wolf wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to

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