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This architect wants to turn lava from Icelandic volcanoes into lava




I was a little skeptical when I first sat down and talked to Icelandic architect Arnhildur Pálmadóttir. Since 2018, her company, SAP, has been researching how to use lava from the myriad volcanoes of Iceland and use it as a natural building material.

The concept looked terribly eccentric, but the more she spoke, the more I noticed something. If humans could drill 20,000 feet of oil, why couldn’t they make similar efforts to take advantage of other substances that spring from Earth?

[Image: courtesy Arnhildur Pálmadóttir]The quest for architects has now culminated in a project called Lavaforming, which was the subject of an exhibition in Reykjavik. This idea was born as a fundamental response to the climate crisis.

Construction and building materials now account for 11% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. As a result, architects and developers are increasingly using locally sourced materials with lower carbon dioxide emissions than concrete and steel. Much of Africa is sun-dried, China is bamboo, and Mexico is agave waste.

[Image: courtesy Arnhildur Pálmadóttir]In Iceland, lava felt like a very obvious candidate, so Palmadottil was really surprised that no one had ever thought about it. “We don’t have a lot of natural resources, we have a field of stones and lava,” she says.

Currently, architects have presented three ideas on how to utilize lava. A 3D printed brick made from lava that digs a ditch for lava to flow in when a volcano erupts, punctures magma (before it erupts and turns into lava). This proposal focuses on Iceland, but can also be applied to 1,500 other active volcanoes scattered around the world.

[Image: courtesy Arnhildur Pálmadóttir]This is how it works. The first scenario relies on natural eruptions that occur every five years on average in Iceland. (The last one occurred in March 2021, 25 miles southwest of the capital Reykjavik, but as National Geographic reported, it is possible that decades of frequent volcanic eruptions have begun.)

[Image: courtesy Arnhildur Pálmadóttir]Therefore, the next time the volcano erupts, slow-flowing lava will flow into the network of trenches dug down. These can be used to redirect lava and protect critical infrastructure nearby. Trench can also be used to form the foundation of a new city as lava cools to hard rock. And if you dig up the soil around the trenches filled with solidified lava, those trenches can become walls.

In this scenario, the architect relies on the predictive model that scientists are currently working on. For example, weather forecasts, but for volcanoes. Designed to predict when and where the next eruption will occur, these models can be linked to the design model “to predict where the city will be located,” said SAP architect. Arnar Skarphéðinsson (and son of Pálmadóttir) says.

[Image: courtesy Arnhildur Pálmadóttir]When there are no volcanic eruptions on the horizon, architects want to piggyback on the ongoing scientific research of geothermal energy. Iceland is divided by a rift that divides the country from east to west. Deep in the fiery magma lift-run pocket that transfers heat to the Earth’s rock mantle above it: when used properly, this so-called geothermal heat is used to generate enormous amounts of electricity. There is a possibility.

Such studies have already been conducted near Krafla volcano in northern Iceland. If architects could use similar equipment, they could dig deeper and hit the magma pockets that could be extracted. You can then mold the material into bricks or manipulate it into a 3D printing material.

Yes, this may be the story of a disaster movie, but as Pálmadóttir points out, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is already printing on molten glass. Why didn’t lava work?

[Image: courtesy Arnhildur Pálmadóttir]Architects remain somewhat realistic for all of their wild ideas. “I think it’s a good idea, but we recognize that it may not happen in our lifetime,” says Skarphéðinsson. For him, the radical nature of the project shows how devastating the crisis in building materials has become, and how desperate architects are to find more sustainable solutions.

But there is something else. In 2012, Iceland held a constitutional referendum. One question asked if citizens wanted to declare the island’s natural resources, which were not yet privately owned, as state property. The answer was yes, but Skarphéðinsson has said “nothing has been done” since then.

“If we have this constitution and can build a lava city, the whole city will be publicly owned, which I think is an important step in the climate crisis,” he says. This can help promote climate fairness. “We don’t want Elon Musk to own lava.”




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