Most geological collections we hear about in the news are the prettiest, oldest, youngest, largest, smallest, rarest, most expensive or have some exciting story related to them that ties them to the evolution of our planet. Dinosaurs, human remains and meteorites are particularly popular. Over the last year we’ve embarked on a major curatorial project rehousing something that is the opposite – an unglamorous collection of bags of crushed rock.
Dr Paul F. Schofield is leading the part of the CoG3 project that focuses on describing and characterising new ore types, with an aim of developing new ways of extracting cobalt (Co). He reports back on a visit to Diamond Light Source.
In early September the Museum CoG3 team met with Prof Fred Mosselmans, a fellow member of the CoG3 consortium from Diamond Light Source. The team hoped to use Diamond’s facilities to study how cobalt is incorporated into the minerals of the Nkamouna cobalt-nickel laterite deposit in Cameroon.
The Diamond Light Source facility provides very intense, high-brightness beams of X-rays that are focused to produce powerful microscopes. Not only do these microscopes allow us to image the distribution of cobalt in natural materials with nanometre scale resolution, but they also enable us to measure how the cobalt atoms are actually bound into the atomic structure of their hosting minerals.
The Central African copper belt is one of the world’s most important copper producing districts, with dozens of deposits spanning a 400km length through the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Zambia. Of these copper deposits, a select few contain significant quantities of cobalt, which is produced as a by-product of the ore refining process.
In June 2016 a field trip was undertaken to Zambia in order to examine cobalt-rich ore from the copper belt. Dr Alex Webber, Research Fellow at the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton and member of the COG3 Consortium reports from the field trip.
In April 2016 the CoG3 team travelled to Brazil to carry out fieldwork at the Piauí deposit. Researcher Dr Paul Schofield describes their trip:
Cobalt is a technology-enabling metal with numerous applications that are particularly essential to the ‘green agenda’. Despite cobalt being such a critical material, there is a very high risk associated with its supply.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!