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“Embrace the uncertainty”

Dr Kevin Wong is a Research Fellow at Deep Carbon Lab, University of Bologna, Italy

30 May 2024
Dr Kevin Wong, Research Fellow at Deep Carbon Lab, University of Bologna

Dr Kevin Wong, Research Fellow at Deep Carbon Lab, University of Bologna

Tell us about your research

I create computer simulations to determine the amount of hydrogen and methane gas being produced in the mantle from chemical reactions that happen between rocks and water. As a geochemist, I’m curious about the mantle; it’s 30 km deep, which means that it’s mostly inaccessible to us. There are two main philosophies geoscientists have for understanding the mantle. The first is to look at mantle rocks. Sometimes during tectonic processes, mantle rocks are brought up to the surface to form ophiolites, which we can study. This method is more top down. Conversely, my approach is based on past experiments that determined how different minerals behave under different temperatures and pressures. We now have numerical models based on the thermodynamic behaviour of these minerals, which I use to estimate how rocks behave under mantle pressures and temperatures, in a more bottom-up approach. The aim of my research group, Deep Carbon Lab, Bologna, is to tackle questions from these two different directions and hopefully end up somewhere in the middle. We can see where our models meet the actual rocks and what this can tell us.

What can we learn from researching mantle hydrogen and methane?

My research group received a European Research Council grant for the DeepSeep project in 2019 and formed the Deep Carbon Lab. We are particularly interested in hydrogen and methane generation. Methane is commonly found in natural gas, and there has been much discussion recently about hydrogen being used as a potential fuel for cars. In addition to being an anthropogenic source of energy, these two gases also act as sources of energy for microbial life. If you imagine a time in the past when Earth didn’t have any oxygen in its atmosphere, all life on Earth had to “breathe” in the absence of oxygen. We believe that these forms of microbial life used gases such as hydrogen or methane as potential sources of energy. This microbial life may still persist today, particularly in settings such as mid-ocean ridges, but also in subduction zones. Understanding the reactions between mantle rocks and subduction zone fluids is therefore important for understanding the extent to which life may exist in the so-called deep biosphere, but also for understanding how life on Earth initially came to be.

What’s your favourite thing about your research?

The implications my findings might have for early life. It’s quite cool thinking about how the reactions I’m looking at might have been the driver or the energy source for the earliest forms of life on Earth. Another aspect I enjoy is that there is little research in this field. People have looked at geochemical reactions happening at mid-ocean ridge settings, such as the Lost City hydrothermal field in the Atlantic Ocean. However, the kind of subduction zone settings that I am looking at, which occur much deeper in Earth, have only been a subject of intense study since we received the research grant. The novelty of the field itself is something that keeps me working every single day.

What advice would you give to aspiring researchers and geochemists?

Embrace the uncertainty. My field of geochemistry has inherent error because we cannot directly access the mantle. As I build my computer models, I always question myself. But then I remember that no one has done this before, and that relaxes me. I start realising that whatever results I generate are brand new. These are brand new settings and rocks that we’re modelling – it’s best to hang on to that excited feeling.

Listen to the full conversation in the 5 minutes with Kevin Wong podcast

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