Martin, geologist

To validate our scientific approach in our online content, our on-site activities with children and our games, we called on scientists and researchers from different backgrounds.

We also asked them to tell us their motivations and their daily lives in the hope of arousing the curiosity of all the little budding scientists.

Martin Smith is our ambassador for the Lithosphere.

I am

I am Martin Smith and I am a doctor of rocks! More specifically, I am a researcher and lecturer in geology at the School of Environment and Technology at the University of Brighton.

My specialty is geochemistry – the chemistry of rocks and the natural environment. I have two main areas I work on as a specialty – the formation of natural resources, and the chemistry and movement of groundwater.

I became interested in geology when I was a child because I loved climbing on the sea cliffs of the coast of the north of England, and on holidays in Wales. Whilst I was doing that I was always really excited if I managed to find a fossil or an interesting mineral.

I explain

For natural resources, all the things we use day to day rely on a supply of minerals, and as we develop new technologies and the existing technologies get taken up by the developing world, we can’t supply everything we need by recycling. So we need to find ways to use the materials we have as sustainably as possible, and to find minerals we can mine with as little environmental damage as possible.

One of my previous projects involves looking for new types of copper deposits in Sweden and Kazakhstan, and investigate how they form so we can predict where to find more. We can’t have electricity supply without copper!

Currently I am working on supplies of rare metals. We need these to build the renewable and low carbon energy supply in things like wind farms and electric cars so we can send less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

For groundwater, we all need freshwater, and the world’s biggest supply outside of the polar ice is in the ground. Some cities (like Brighton in the UK) get most of their water supply from wells. I investigate what controls the chemistry of groundwater and makes it safe to use, and how water gets from the surface into the pore space in rocks.

Some of the most exciting things about mineral deposits are what they can tell us about how the Earth developed over geological time. The way metals become enriched in the Earth’s crust is linked to how the continents grew and the types of volcanoes that have occurred. Volcanoes themselves might have influenced the way life has evolved by triggering mass extinctions (it not all down to meteorites!).

The discovery of ‘black smokers’ – submarine chimneys spewing metal rich water at up to 400˚C into the oceans, powered by volcanic heat – tells us that metal deposits are still forming deep in the oceans today. These might be one of the environments in which life first appeared – whole ecosystems live on the vents today that just need the chemical energy in the water to keep going. They don’t use sunlight!

I tell

Every time I do field work there is always something exciting or funny that can happen. I have nearly sat on a snake in Madagascar when one happened to be sleeping under a rock I was looking at. I’ve met scorpions in camp toilets! I’ve even flown home with delicate samples in my socks to keep them from breaking in my luggage.

The best success I’ve had is probably getting to work with synchrotron radiation at the Diamond facility in the UK. This is a small particle accelerator that generates high energy X-ray beams. We used one of the beams to measure the space around individual rare metal atoms absorbed on to clay mineral surfaces. This was the first time this has been done, and shows us where the metal atoms are in rare metal deposits right down at the scale of molecules.

I have

For any scientist, the best thing you can do is be really interested and enthusaistic about what you are investigating. Even if I didn’t work as a geologist, mountains would fascinate me, and I would want to know how they got there. You’ve also got to be really good at noticing things. A lot of geology is about working out what happened to a set of rocks and minerals. To be able to do this well you have to have really good attention to detail. It’s like unravelling a crime scene. What is there that can tell me how this rock or mineral got here? If I think this happened is there any evidence that might prove me wrong?

I know

When I was at school, I was very good at sciences, particularly chemistry, but I didn’t want to spend all my life in laboratories. I thought that geology and geochemistry would let me be a scientist whilst climbing mountains and spending lots of time outside!

I do

The great thing about geology is it has given me chance to work all over the world. I have worked in the UK, Sweden, Kazakhstan, Australia, Greece, Canada, Madagascar, Spain and Mongolia. Usually I am visiting either a special geological site that has some geochemical or mineralogical feature that I want to look at, or I am visiting a mine site. I record the geology, collect samples of rocks and minerals and take them back to the lab for analysis. I get to do fieldwork like this every year for teaching, when I train students how to make geological maps either in the north of England, or southern Spain.

Back in the lab, I will choose and describe rock samples, particularly looking for the ones with important minerals in. We then use rock saws to cut thin sections of these rocks to look at on microscopes. Once we have found the minerals we are interested in we analyse their chemistry. This can include using electron microscopes, lasers, X-rays and plasma spectrometers. It is always amazing that we can read parts of the history of the earth in something smaller than a pin head.

Every year or so I get to go somewhere a bit further afield for my research!

I support

Mineral resources are really important for affordable and clean energy (goal 7), and for responsible consumption and production (goal 12). The more we can recycle things the better, but there will always be places that need new materials for clean water and energy so we will always need some new mineral resources. Also the new materials we need for clean energy production need new elements that we don’t already use in large amounts.

Using natural resources as carefully as possible is really important for future generations, and to protect the environment. The more we know about the mineral resources, the better we can plan their use, and find ways to extract them that cause less damage to the environment.

When I work on ground water I also support the Clean water and sanitation goal (goal 6). Groundwater is the biggest available freshwater resource, but it is not very visible so it is often forgotten. It is really important that we use is sustainably and stop it becoming contaminated.