I am involved in several exciting projects at the University of Cambridge, each of which is part of the Cambridge Earth Systems Science DTP (projects I am involved in) and will base the student in the Department of Earth Sciences. Several of the projects below are cross-disciplinary and link areas of the geosciences and astronomy. My research life is based both in the Institute of Astronomy and Department of Earth Sciences.
If you have any questions about these projects, please feel free to contact me or one of the other listed supervisors.
The project will ask the question ‘How reliable are magmatic archives as recorders of mantle carbon content?’. There are significant limitations to the most ubiquitous approaches of estimating the carbon content of Earth’s mantle: Using seawater noble gas contents provides a bulk upper mantle estimate, not easily resolving the constituent mantle sources; whilst C/trace-element ratios in melt inclusions are frequently lowered by C degassing. This project will provide new constraints on the distribution and cycling of C within the mantle by employing C isotopes as an independent tracer of degassing, and by targeting for analysis eruptions with geochemical signatures from: the lower mantle (Iceland); crustal recycling (The Canaries); and the archetypal depleted upper mantle.
The crustal composition has likely evolved over time because of weathering. This project will quantify this over Earth history. This has previously been neglected, but could be a major control on crustal composition with implications for the evolution of the surficial environment and for the igneous processes which generate crust. The student will measure stable isotope ratios of Mg and Li on river sediments to characterise average crustal compositions and variability, whilst associated “model” ages will be determined from radiogenic isotope systems such as neodymium. The Li and Mg stable isotope systems are highly-sensitive to water rock interaction, such as weathering, and their fractionations are most prominent at low temperature. Therefore, when combined, these three isotope systems will enable the weathering-driven maturation of the crust to be constrained.
Carbon and sulfur cycling in the Earth’s mantle over the last 4 Ga: new clues from novel stable isotopes
This project will explore carbon and sulfur cycling and mantle source region heterogeneity using a combination of novel stable isotope and geochemical tracers. Through this it will be possible to explore the interplay between partial melting processes, mantle chemical and mineralogical heterogeneity and volatile element cycling. Key ocean island localities will be targeted, which possess abundant evidence for recycled components in their source regions. The study will also extend its reach back over Earth history by considering komatiites, with this project’s analyses contributing important new results to the debate about the origin (thermal vs. compositional) of these enigmatic high-degree melts.
Ab initio structure prediction methods have now reached a maturity that allow them to be used to model the enthalpic stabilities of phases across pseudo-binary composition sections, The project uses this development to search for new structures in key silicates, oxides and carbonates at high pressures, where “unusual” chemical configurations may be stabilised. Such computational predictions demand experimental verification using high-pressure structural techniques such as vibrational spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction of samples pressurised in the diamond anvil cell. This project seeks to identify such unexpected phases by first adopting particle swarm structure prediction methods based on quantum mechanical computational results, combined with experimental studies of these structures for key candidate silicate, oxide and carbonate chemistries.
During this project, we wish to answer the following question: (1) how does the optical absorption signature of minerals such as olivine vary at the micron scale, and what are the key components leading to this variation? (2) Are defects such as dislocations in olivine (a sign of compression and deformation) perceptible with optical tools, and to what extent? (3) How does optical absorption and cathodoluminescence of minerals be used as complementary techniques?
This project will explore the changing composition of the Earth’s mantle and crust from the perspective of novel isotopic tracers. Recently, differences in the 238U/235U in OIB and MORB have been related to recycling of surface material and the different ages of the OIB and MORB sources (Andersen et al. 2015). Similar effects might be expected for stable isotope systems such as the transition metals (e.g. δ98Mo) and δ138Ba (e.g.Freymuth et al. 2015, Nielsen et al. 2018). Mantle-derived samples representing a time-series of Earth’s history will be used to characterise the isotopic evolution of the mantle in these systems and relate them to the history of plate tectonics and the formation of continental crust via geochemical modeling.