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Sustainability in Geochemistry

(Photo courtesy of Lowell Sun)
Dr. Nelson Eby shows off a discovery he made.

Julie Sage
Connector Staff

Environmental science is an area of science that is commonly ignored, but is an important part in understanding our world. This field is important because it’s used to help protect the environment and further human technology, and technology can’t advance without the use of minerals found within the Earth. These are a few of Dr. Nelson Eby’s positions on sustainability. Dr. Eby is an environmental scientist at UMass Lowell whose area of research is geochemistry. When thinking about sustainability, he said that “mineral resources are important, and you can’t recycle yourself to a solution.” An example he gave of this was electric cars. According to him, the amount of lithium that would be needed to make every car electrical is 40 times what is currently being used. That means the need to mine for it. However, even when mining for that quantity, there is no process that is 100% efficient, so mining for those minerals is something that will always need to be done.

One of the studies Dr. Eby is currently involved in is directly related to the need for mining critical minerals, the minerals necessary for day-to-day life, and there are a lot of them. According to the US Geological Survey released last year, there are approximately 50 elements from the periodic table that are critical minerals. One of these minerals includes neodymium, which is what a lot of magnets are made of. 90% of the neodymium supply comes from China, with 60% mined and 30% processed there. One of the only places in the United States that has neodymium mining is Mountain Pass, California. A study by an undergraduate student that is currently being researched is about minerology of rare-earth material ore deposits and looking at the relationship between the ore material and the other minerals that are in the ore. They are looking for a relationship between minerals to figure out if areas in the United States would be good places to look for certain mineral deposits based on other minerals in the area. This is beneficial for sustainability because it would make it easier to receive the materials needed to make clean energy sources, such as wind turbines that use neodymium magnets, and then there wouldn’t be as large of a carbon footprint from importing these goods.

There are many other studies that Dr. Nelson Eby is currently involved in. For example, one of these studies is looking at tree rings to calculate the exact time that Thera, an ancient volcano, erupted. A lot of information can be discovered from tree rings, one of these being timelines of volcanic eruptions. This information is analyzed through studying the mineral content in the tree at each ring, for this case specifically, they looked at the amount of aluminum in the tree. To find this specific eruption, they analyzed the rings found inside a perfectly preserved wooden pole of a tree that would have existed at the time of the Thera eruption. The great thing about tree rings is that one forms every year, so it provides an accurate measurement of when the event happened. However, a tree doesn’t live for hundreds or thousands of years. To account for this, they take trees that were alive from now to a specific time in the past and match the tree rings to create an accurate timeline. Using this method, they have calculated that there were possibly two eruptions in 1562 and 1558 BC. Currently, the date found from the study is being confirmed against ice cores, which also have layers that are formed consistently, by dating the ash layer that Thera left behind in the ice. Studies like these are important because it shows how certain events impact the environment. Using tree rings, history can be properly analyzed and used to find how these trees grew throughout time, which can be used to better predict the impact of future disastrous events, like a volcanic eruption. Environmental science is, and should be regarded as, an important area of study. This science helps create a better understanding of the Earth and is used as a tool to keep society living and healthy. Without it, the understanding many have of the world wouldn’t be as advanced as it is now.

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