Author’s description:
Volcanic eruptions often provide scientists and geologists rare opportunities to study geomorphological processes and biological succession in an environment unaffected by external factors. However, volcanic landscapes often produce a hostile environment in a remote location that prevents any semi-permanent structures from being set up. Nishinoshima is a prominent case which garners attention from scientific communities worldwide. The volcanic islet began as an undersea volcano in November 2013 off the coast of Japan near the Ogasawara Archipelago. The continuous eruption eventually breached the sea level in December of the same year to form landmass that spreads and merges with a nearby existing islet.

The main problem involves the various branching lava flow lobes that made up the surface of the island, each a tongue-shaped mound measuring up to 100 m wide. The lobes are fragile solidified crusts with liquid lava tubes running underneath. The surface of the island therefore cannot support any heavy constructions nor withstand any significant architectural weight. Due to this inhospitable ground condition, no continuous onsite research can be carried out.

VolcanoLite is a proposal for a buoyant research station that sustains itself through the distillation of volcanic gas abundant in the area. Gases ejected from the pyroclastic cone contains a higher concentration of helium when compared to normal atmospheric air. This excess helium can be extracted through the process of fractional distillation, and collected in an inflatable envelope. In this way, the upthrust created can be used to counter the weight of the structure, producing a buoyant architecture that neither exerts significant force onto the ground nor floats up into air. This solves the problem of the inhospitable ground condition on Nishinoshima Island, allowing scientists to set up a base where previously not possible.

The main bulk of the space contains the blimp that is to be filled with distilled helium, while the peripheral space houses the fractionating towers and the machinery involved in the process of fractional distillation. The mass is aligned vertically in a straight line for a stable center of gravity, reducing pitch and yaw motion. The living and research component are located in an air-tight compartment at the bottom of the structure and is designed to house 40 scientists and support crews, containing sleeping units, labs, offices and leisure spaces. Various elevated terraces and VTOL docks allow for field data collection without exposing researchers to the harmful elements. The monumentality of the structure doubles its function as a beacon, allowing the building to be easily located in difficult conditions that would reduce visibility.

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