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Podcast: 5 minutes with Kevin Wong

11 April 2024

In this episode of 5 Minutes With, Marissa Lo (Assistant Editor) speaks to Dr Kevin Wong, a postdoctoral researcher at the Deep Carbon Lab, University of Bologna, Italy.

Dr Kevin Wong, postdoctoral researcher at Deep Carbon Lab, University of Bologna, Italy.

Episode Transcript

[00:10] Marissa Lo: Hello, and welcome to Five Minutes With, a podcast by Geoscientist magazine. My name is Marissa Lo, and today I’m joined by Dr Kevin Wong, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bologna. So thanks so much for joining us, Kevin. Can you tell us what you’re currently working on?

[00:26] Kevin Wong: So, at the moment, I’m writing 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. The mantle is this really strange, curious thing for us. It’s 30 km deep, which means that it’s mostly accessible to us. And as a result, there are really these two main philosophies that geoscientists, such as myself, really have for tackling problems involving the mantle. The first is to look at mantle rocks. Sometimes during tectonic processes, mantle rocks are brought up to the surface and there are these really cool things called ophiolites, and we spend a lot of time trying to head off to these really interesting field areas in remote parts of the world and scrape up some rocks for ourselves. So the first method is more top down, if you will.

The other method is the one I’m using at the moment, which is rather than looking at the rocks themselves, people in the past have done a lot of experiments on different minerals and how these minerals behave under different temperature or pressure. And as a result, what we have now are programs, which are based on the thermodynamics of these minerals. I use these programs to really estimate how these rocks behave when we subject them to mantle pressures and temperatures. And from that, we can then build models; in the same way that a toy train is representative of a train, but not really a train. So this is our more bottom up approach. And the overall aim of my research group, the Deep Carbon Lab, Bologna, is to tackle the problem we’re looking at from these two different directions, and hopefully end up somewhere in the middle. And we can see where our models meet the actual rocks themselves and see what it can tell us.

[02:06] Marissa Lo: Can you tell us a bit more about these gases that you’re looking into then? What does that tell us about the mantle?

[02:12] Kevin Wong: So, at the moment, here at the Deep Carbon Lab in Bologna, we’ve received a European Research Council grant called DeepSeep. And what we’re interested in in particular is hydrogen and methane generation. Methane is commonly found in natural gas, and there’s been a lot of discussion recently about hydrogen being used as a potential fuel, or [for] cars and fuel cells. In addition to being an anthropogenic source of energy, these two gases also act as sources of energy for life, 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, breathe in inverted commas, that is, in the absence of oxygen. And so we believe that they used gases such as hydrogen or methane as potential sources of energy. And we believe that these forms of microbial life may still persist to the present day, particularly in settings such as mid ocean ridges, where mantle rocks can be exposed to seawater, but also in subduction zone settings, too. Water, which is normally locked away, reacts with fresh basaltic crust being formed at mid ocean ridges in mineral structures. When those minerals then re-enter the Earth, metamorphism causes those minerals to change form. As a result, water is then released. We have a lot of hydrogen and methane generation happening in the mantle as well. And it’s believed that this hydrogen and methane generation can act as a source of energy for some of the hardiest, deepest forms of life on Earth, which live deep in the Earth’s crust and potentially in the uppermost mantle as well. And understanding the reactions between mantle rocks and subduction zone fluids is therefore really important for understanding the extent to which life may exist, this so called deep biosphere, but also understanding how life on Earth may have actually initially come to be.

[03:56] Marissa Lo: So, what’s your favourite thing about your research?

[03:59] Kevin Wong: I guess the favourite thing I have about my research at the moment is really the implications it might have for early life, as I mentioned. It’s quite cool thinking about how these reactions that I’m looking at might have been the driver, the energy source, for the earliest forms of life on Earth. Another thing is that I guess no one’s really done this kind of stuff before. People have looked at this particular process happening at mid ocean ridge settings, where we have these environments, such as the Lost City Field, for example. However, the kind of settings that I’m looking at, which occur much, much deeper in the Earth, it’s only really been a subject of super intense study, really, since we received this European Research Council grant. The novelty of the field itself is something which keeps me working every single day.

[04:44] Marissa Lo: What advice would you give to someone hoping to learn more about geochemistry, or hoping to go into research themselves?

[04:52] Kevin Wong: If you were to go into my particular field of geochemistry, the main bit of advice I would give you would be to embrace the uncertainty. It’s a field which has a lot of inherent error to it, because we can’t access the areas we want to look at. Whenever I build my computer models every day, I question myself. I have to make sure everything makes some sort of sense in my head. But then when you realise no one’s done this before, it relaxes you a bit. You start realising that whatever results you generate are brand new. These are brand new settings, brand new rocks that we’re playing with. And as a result, it’s best to just hang on to that feeling.

[05:29] Marissa Lo: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Kev, and all the best for the rest of your research.

[05:33] Kevin Wong: Thank you. And thank you for having me.

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