Inspiring the next generation | CoG3 Consortium

Ed Thomas, PhD student on the CoG3 project, explains the importance of cobalt to a group of school children in Manchester.

As a Widening Participation Fellow I am often involved with outreach events encouraging school children in to science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. My workshops are usually based on an aspect of Earth Sciences that the children have come across before; the rock cycle, dinosaurs, volcanoes…

Photo of Ed in front of a whiteboard  presentation
Explaining to a class of nine year old’s the importance of cobalt
However, the most engaging part of science is not what we already know, but the unsolved problems we face as a society. It is one of these unanswered questions I posed to year 9 children from four schools in Greater Manchester.

Continue reading “Inspiring the next generation | CoG3 Consortium”

#Popo2016: the mule diaries | Volcanology

We have only spent a few days in Mexico, but so much has happened already: we have driven 600 km around the flanks of El Popo whilst getting a comprehensive crash course in Mexican music by Hugo; we have casually named previously unmapped lava flows; scared away scorpions with our merciless hammering on rocks; digested 3-cows-worth of Mexican food; and, above all, marveled at snow-covered Popo, which was silent witness and patron of all our endeavours.

Photo showing the snow covered, smouldering volcano
A snow-covered Popocatépetl (aka El Popo) as seen from Paso de Cortes on 5 March

But let’s wind back a bit and take it up at the beginning of our trip, Mexico City…

Continue reading “#Popo2016: the mule diaries | Volcanology”

Copper futures: how Museum science searches for the copper we need | Sustainability

by Professor Richard Herrington, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences

The world needs copper – we all need copper. It carries the electricity and hot water in our homes through cables and pipes. It is part of all the electrical appliances we use at home and in industry – an essential ingredient in any low-carbon economy. The sources and security of supply of copper are important in economic terms and of great interest for government policy and business strategy.

Photo showing the deposit in the mountain side.
Quellaveco deposit (not yet being mined) in the Peruvian Andes. The white markers in the landscape mark the extent of the copper mineralisation at surface.

Every person in the UK uses around 8kg of copper per year. Worldwide usage exceeds 24 million tonnes annually and, whilst around 41% of European copper needs are met by recycling, the demands of growing economies like China and India mean that 75% of this usage is met by mined metal. Copper can’t be grown and simply recycling what we have already extracted won’t keep pace with demands.

Continue reading “Copper futures: how Museum science searches for the copper we need | Sustainability”

Magnificent manganese and the search for cobalt | CoG3 Consortium

At the start of a major new project involving collaboration between 8 institutions from across the UK, Rachel Norman of the Museum’s Economic and Environmental Earth Sciences division introduces us to one of the new ways the CoG3 team are unearthing cobalt, a metal of great strategic and economic importance.

On Wednesday 27 January, Museum and University of Southampton scientists searched in the Museum collections for manganese nodules.

Photo showing the specimen resting on the desk
A manganese nodule growing around a shark’s tooth. This sample was actually collected by HMS Challenger in 1875.

Manganese nodules form in very deep water on the seafloor, at the sediment-water interface, and cover vast areas. They form by the precipitation of manganese minerals out of seawater over extremely long time scales. Manganese nodules grow at a rate of just ~2 mm per million years, making them one of the slowest geological processes that we know of. This means that if a nodule reaches a radius of 50 mm, it could be 25 million years old!

Continue reading “Magnificent manganese and the search for cobalt | CoG3 Consortium”

If a meteorite falls in a forest… | Meteorites

Last Monday night there were numerous reports of a large meteor over Scotland. What is a meteor? And how can they help us unravel the secrets of the solar system?

Most meteors are tiny specks of dust from space that generate a bright trail in the sky as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The largest meteors – often called fireballs – can sometimes even result in meteorites landing on the ground (note, a meteorite is what a meteor becomes once it has hit the ground; a meteor is what a meteoroid becomes once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere).

Continue reading “If a meteorite falls in a forest… | Meteorites”

Popocatépetl: a song of snow and fire | Volcanology

Dear reader, be aware… the content of this blog may be explosive! As I am writing this, the crater of the Mexican volcano, Popocatépetl, is alight with the glow of the hot lava that is slowly being squeezed out to the surface. Sometimes this happens very calmly, and only a trail of puffs of steam mark the activity.

Smoking Popocatepetl
Smoking Popocatépetl, 24 Jan 2016. © José Arnoldo Rodríguez Carrington via Flickr

But this apparent tranquility can quickly change into something much larger, much more violent, and much more dangerous to the 30 million people living around Popocatépetl. How can the volcano change its behavior so quickly? And what, exactly, does quick even mean in this case? Well, this is what we Volcanologists at the Museum are trying to find out, and that is why we are right now packing our geological hammers, getting ready to take off to Mexico!

Continue reading “Popocatépetl: a song of snow and fire | Volcanology”

How do you scan a shark? | Vertebrates Palaeobiology

You may have seen the Museum’s work in the news recently, when our scan of a catshark helped University of Sheffield researchers understand how shark teeth evolved. In this blog, Brett Clark from the Museum’s Vertebrates Palaeobiology department shows us the method used.

Our research, led by Dr Zerina Johanson, investigates the evolution and development of teeth in jawed vertebrates – in particular, the tooth arrangement of present day sharks.

But how exactly do you scan a shark?

Continue reading “How do you scan a shark? | Vertebrates Palaeobiology”

Notes in the collections tell natural stories | Curator of Micropalaeontology

Earlier in the summer I tweeted a picture of a microfossil slide I made in 1997. On the back I had written that it was made while I was listening to England bowl Australia out for 118 in a cricket test match at Edgbaston, Birmingham.

slide with cricket annotation
A microfossil slide with a cricket-related annotation on the back.

The slide got me thinking about more important hidden notes I have found recently that relate to historical events and provide a context to the microfossil collection. This post examines evidence of a collector’s escape from a disintegrating ice floe, attempts to cover-up a major disagreement between two scientists and the sad end for a laboratory that led to my first job as a curator.

Continue reading “Notes in the collections tell natural stories | Curator of Micropalaeontology”

Chance discovery contributes to origins and evolution focus | Curator of Micropalaeontology

When I first came to the Museum I dreamt that one day someone would bring something in for identification that I would recognise to be a really important find. The contents of a consultancy sample back in 2005 helped to make my wish come true. This post tells of the discovery and subsequent publication of a significant species of early fossil fish from Oman that provides information on the origins and evolution of life on our planet, one of the main focus areas of Museum science.

Montage of photos showing close ups of fossil plates and scales
Examples of plates and scales of the early fish Sacabambaspis

Very occasionally I get consultancy rock samples sent to me for dissolving to find microfossils. This is so that we can provide the age for a rock formation or details about fossil environments or climate. And so it was that Alan Heward, then of Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), sent me a sample in 2005 for analysis to try to find age diagnostic conodonts. Conodonts are extinct phosphatic microfossils that look like teeth and are used extensively for dating rocks that are roughly 500-205 million years old.

Continue reading “Chance discovery contributes to origins and evolution focus | Curator of Micropalaeontology”

New paper: Modal mineralogy of CI and CI-like chondrites by X-ray diffraction | Meteorites

Some meteorites, called CI chondrites, contain quite a lot of water; more than 15% of their total weight. Scientists have suggested that impacts by meteorites like these could have delivered water to the early Earth. The water in CI chondrites is locked up in minerals produced by aqueous alteration processes on the meteorite’s parent asteroid, billions of years ago. It has been very hard to study these minerals due to their small size, but new work carried out by the Meteorite Group at the Natural History Museum has been able to quantify the abundance of these minerals.

A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.
A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.

The minerals produced by aqueous alteration (including phyllosilicates, carbonates, sulphides and oxides) are typically less than one micron in size (the width of a human hair is around 100 microns!). They are very important, despite their small size, because they are major carriers of water in meteorites. We need to know how much of a meteorite is made of these minerals in order to fully understand fundamental things such as the physical and chemical conditions of aqueous alteration, and what the original starting mineralogy of asteroids was like.

Continue reading “New paper: Modal mineralogy of CI and CI-like chondrites by X-ray diffraction | Meteorites”