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CSI meets Earth Sciences

By Kelly Foss

Dr. Elliott Burden, a professor of Earth Sciences, is currently working with a piece of equipment most commonly found in police forensic analysis labs, or featured on hit shows like CSI, to look for zombie fossils.

At a new CREAIT laboratory managed by Helen Gillespie, this $200,000 microscope with attached fluorescence analyzer was purchased through Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Petroleum Research Atlantic Canada as an “experimental pre-commercialization item.”

While many of these microscopes exist across the country, only two are currently being used for geological applications.

Having worked with the technology in the past, Dr. Burden said that advances in computers and software have meant this piece of equipment now has real potential for commercial application in geological studies. The science behind his experiments involves taking material – be it modern or ancient – and putting it under the microscope where it is hit with ultraviolet light. As with black lights at parties, many objects fluoresce in different colours. The computer then measures the spectrum of light given off by the material to determine physical and chemical properties.

“The common dogma is that whatever you find in the fossil record actually belongs there,” said Dr. Burden. “That’s not entirely true. What happens is sometimes fossils get recycled – old fossils end up getting mixed with other younger fossils. These old fossils are facetiously called zombies; the dead have come back from their graves.

“Without a fluorescence microscope, you can’t easily tell which fossil doesn’t belong,” he added. “With this instrument, the zombies give off one colour and the fossils that belong to those deposits give off another. I can now separate out assemblages of fossils that belong to a rock, and ignore the ones that don’t belong there.”

The microscope allows Dr. Burden to more precisely understand the age of the rock, how deeply buried it may have been, and whether hydrocarbons may have formed or not. These details are very important to the oil industry.

“With this microscope, you can easily see the basic rock lithology that forms oil,” he said. “You can go into a sample and identify all the bits and pieces of material that generate oil. The microscope provides a very powerful image for geologists to see and to analyze.

“In terms of geological uses, we’re really at the cutting edge of science,” he said. “I came here 26 years ago with the intent of doing this. I had the basic pieces then but I didn’t have sensitive photometers and powerful desktop computers needed to make it work. Now we’re trying to figure out what we can do to commercialize it, and how we can promote it to a larger audience.”

He says the microscope can also be used to identify particular minerals in rocks, as they too will give off distinctive spectral signatures.

“The sense of discovery is tremendous because nobody has really explored where we can extend geological applications,” said Dr. Burden. “We’re just scratching the surface.”