International Scientists Share Earth, Energy and Environmental Discoveries at UT-ORNL Conference

KNOXVILLE — Can we stop climate change by pumping carbon into the Earth’s core? Could marine life on Earth be the key to discovering life on other planets? What did the world look like hundreds of millions of years ago?

These are some questions that will be addressed at this year’s Goldschmidt Conference hosted by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, June 13-18 at the Knoxville Convention Center in World’s Fair Park.

Goldschmidt features new scientific discoveries regarding Earth, energy and the environment. It is the world’s largest geochemistry conference with more than 2,000 geochemists from around the globe performing more than 1,500 presentations on a wide array of topics.

The attendees are as diverse as the subjects they will be discussing. Forty-five percent of participants are international and convention center officials say they have never hosted so many people from so many countries at an event. The conference is held in cities around the world. Last year, it was held in Davos, Switzerland. Next year, it will be held in Prague, Czech Republic.

Sen. Lamar Alexander will kick off the event with a speech at 8:15 a.m. on Monday, June 14. The senator will have brief media availability following his speech.

In addition to presenting research, participants will forge relationships with key members in the geochemical field, including academics vendors of scientific equipment and potential employees.

Environmental issues and potential solutions will be widely debated at the conference. For instance, carbon sequestration — the act of capturing and pumping carbon deep underground to remove it from the Earth’s atmosphere as a way to reduce greenhouse gases — will be a hot topic.

Sigurdur Gislason of the University of Iceland will discuss his pilot program which captures carbon from a geothermal power plant in Iceland and injects it up to a half a mile into the Earth. If his project is successful, Gislason says carbon sequestration can be used wherever carbon dioxide is emitted.

Donald DePaolo of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is not so sure about the successes of the process. The distinguished geochemist will speak about the potential dangers of carbon sequestration. According to DePaolo, more analysis on how carbon reacts with chemicals underground is needed.

“When carbon dioxide comes into contact with water in underground aquifers, it can form a weak acid that will start to dissolve materials in rocks,” DePaolo said. “Research is needed to analyze how fast such reactions proceed and which minerals are affected to better gauge efficiency of carbon storage projects.”

Beth Orcutt, a post-doctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark and the University of Southern California, will be presenting her findings on life on the deep ocean floor. Using a robotic submarine almost two miles deep in the ocean, Orcutt drilled through 850 meet of sediment to reach microbes beneath ocean floor. Because the microscopic organisms exist in an extreme environment that receives no light, the microbiologist believes her research also can yield a new understanding of the potential for life on other planets.

“The subsurface under deep oceans is an extreme environment for any life to exist. Such environments may be present on other planets so life might exist there in the form of microbial organisms,” Orcutt said.

Another presentation will shed light on what our planet looked like 700 million years ago. Alison Olcott Marshall, a geochemist at the University of Kansas, has examined chemical fossils unearthed from a half a mile down that show what existed during a time called “Snowball Earth,” when the world was covered in glacial ice and only single-cell organisms existed. Marshall’s technique has uncovered a way to distinguish organic carbon deposited by ice sheets that formed earlier.

The Goldschmidt Conference is named for Victor Goldschmidt (1888-1947), the Swiss-Norwegian scientist who is considered the father of geochemistry. For more information about the conference, visit http://www.goldschmidt2010.org.

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C O N T A C T:

Hap McSween (865-974-9805, mcsween@utk.edu)

Ted Labotka (865-974-9805, tlabotka@utk.edu)

Whitney Holmes (865-974-5460, wholmes7@utk.edu)

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