GVSU joins two other schools for NSF-funded study of prominent rock with unclear origins

A Grand Valley geologist is part of a multi-institutional project to study a mineral that is difficult to research yet could hold clues to the earliest conditions of Earth.

Ian Winkelstern, affiliate professor of geology, will join colleagues from Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan on the three-year project funded by a $420,830 grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The scientists are studying dolomite, which Winkelstern said is the most common sedimentary rock in the world, with much of it forming hundreds of millions of years ago.

The problem: "We don't really understand how it formed," Winkelstern said.

Researcher Ian Winkelstern gazes into the distance.
Ian Winkelstern, affiliate professor of geology, will also have students join the project.
Image credit - Valerie Hendrickson

To better understand the mineral's origins, this project will involve prominent geochemical work, which Grand Valley students will also help carry out, Winkelstern said.

Recreating the mineral in the lab — necessary to understand its original composition since a natural sample will have changed through the ages — has been difficult, Winkelstern said, but his colleagues have determined a way to do it.

"With a better chemical understanding of how it’s formed, that helps us understand temperatures and other conditions when forming," said Winkelstern. "One of the things that interests me is that it is a resilient mineral that is hard to alter. It can sit on the surface of the Earth and look relatively unchanged."

This research could unlock a vast number of projects around the world to more fully study dolomite and the environmental factors in its formation, Winkelstern said. 

In addition, better understanding of the Earth's subsurface temperatures could be helpful for understanding how oil and natural gas are formed; they also get trapped in spaces within the rock, he said.

This potential application of the research is important, Winkelstern said, but he said he is also excited about the potential knowledge gleaned through this study.

"We're trying to understand some fundamental things about how the Earth works," he said.


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