Chemical geology reveals new clues in old rocks

General May 15, 2010

Paleogeographic Reconstruction ~300–320 Million years ago of Southeastern US

Lacefield, J., 2002, and Geological Survey of Alabama

Uddin and Hames use Himalayas to interpret Appalachians

The hard work and technology flexed when a cold case is solved is incredible. The local ne’er-do-well finally gets cuffed for the murder committed 60 years ago or video evidence surfaces to alter the way we understand how an event happened long ago. Feats of modern technology and perseverance, to be sure. These changes can reshape the way we understand the world we move through everyday.

What about events that happened a bit longer ago? Say 320 million years ago. There is an area that’s got to be impossible. Right?

Video evidence is out of the question. And we can probably write off witness testimony as well. Actually no. Auburn researchers Ashraf Uddin and Bill Hames have some witnesses and are using modern mineral interrogation techniques to get some pretty amazing witnesses to spill their guts.

You see, geologists in the 1970s offered their opinions that the sediment that existed in the Black Warrior Basin south of Birmingham Alabama flowed there from a large mountain range called the Ouachitas, into an ocean that existed just south of Birmingham, Alabama. Alabama’s bounty of coal and natural gas formed as mineral sediments from high mountain ranges buried swamps around the margins of this ocean. Getting minerals to confirm or deny this story takes some serious machinery. So serious that Hames and Uddin decided that the off the shelf mass spectrometers that would normally be called in to do the legwork weren’t quite up the task. So they built their own. “I always say we’ve got good machinists here at Auburn,” Hames says, smiling. Some of the builders were even students—giving a whole new meaning to hands-on opportunity.

The laser from their custom built mass spectrometer constructed leveraging Auburn’s engineering expertise and student enthusiasm now fires every 15 minutes. Round the clock, run by a tireless computer. The laser forces the minerals to tell what they know. And slowly, the picture of a strange world is emerging more and more clearly than ever before.

On a typical day 320 million years ago Africa is jammed cheek-by-jowl up against Alabama, the Gulf of Mexico is to the north, and the Appalachians are 35,000 feet tall. Early data seems to show that the 1970’s modeling was quite mistaken. While their research doesn’t dispute the fact that there was a high mountain range called the Ouachita, using these new techniques and their sweet lasers, Uddin and Hames are discovering that the story is very different. Their mineral witnesses are showing the Appalachians actually provided most of the minerals to this area and came from as far North as modern day Pennsylvania.

With their geologic expertise and laser focus Uddin and Hames will continue to the history of earth’s processes and Alabama’s natural resources.

Principal Investigators

Dr. Bill Hames
Dr. Ashraf Uddin
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