Research Projects

BACKGROUND: My research at the Ph.D. level (PSU) focused on the macromolecular geochemistry of coal, changes in the molecular structure of coal as a function of organic metamorphism, and the application of pyrolysis Gas Chromatography-mass spectrometry and Solid State Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy of natural macromolecular organic solids (e.g., Kerogens and in particular coal). During my Post Doc and Fermi Fellowship in the Chemistry Division of Argonne National Laboratory I initiated studies using Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscopy (STXM) and sub-micron C-, N-, and O- Xray Absorption Near Edge Structure (XANES) spectroscopy to study natural organic solids, e.g. coals, kerogens, and wood [Note as far as I can see, I was the first Geoscientist to use STXM for micro analysis of the organic sub-constituents in kerogen/coal (macerals) using C, N, and O micro-XANES this paper was published in 1995 in Energy and Fuels (see publications)] Do I get a prize? Nope, but I did introduce a number of new users to this incredible technique! While at Argonne National Laboratory I was also introduced to Small Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS)- a very powerful technique. I have not exploited SANS recently, but I see a very excellent application requiring neutrons that I intend to take advantage of in the near future. Neutron beams provide a unique view of matter! Always Consider Neutrons!

PRESENTLY: Provided the freedom that Carnegie Science provides me, I have continued to explore the best science as it presents itself to me through experiment. For me, the best science emerges serendipitously while exploring important questions. Currently, I am working on four core areas in no particular order:

  • The study of extraterrestrial organic solids present in primitive (and somewhat processed) Solar System objects- Chondritic meteorites and Comet samples (when I can get my hands on them). I and my collaborators have made considerable progress in understanding what this reservoir of carbon tells us about carbon in general in the Solar system and in Earth.
  • Origins of Life: Geomimetic Biochemistry. Thanks to my early introduction to Harold Morowitz I have had the pleasure of considering how the early Earth might have provided chemical opportunities that might have favored lifes origins here.
  • Deciphering ancient biochemistry encoded in organic fossils: Primarily exploiting STXM (LINK) and benefitting through great collaborations with experts on the study of ancient life [e.g. Kevin Boyce (Stanford), Derek Briggs (Yale), Dianne Edwards (Cardiff)] I have had the pleasure of trying to pull out biochemical history from ancient organic fossils. From ancient trees and progenitors of trees, to ancient arthropods (scorpions, eurypterids, to trillobites). More recently have been working on a classic problem of Prototaxites with Dianne Edwards.
  • Understanding how volatiles interact with Silicate melts: I have been collaborating with my colleague Bjron Mysen and many post-docs and interns using Solid State NMR to study silicate melt chemistry- as quenched to glass for NMR analysis. We have studied glass chemistry vs structure for a wide range of compositions, a focus on volatiles has been important to us- H2O, CHO, Nitrogen are all very interesting.
  • Advanced understanding of ultra-high pressure Organic Solids: Primarily because I run the GL Solid State NMR facility and have learned to work with minimal samples and how to minimize background I have been involved in some really interesting studies of organic polymers formed at extreme pressures (up to 25 GPa at ~ room T). These typically involve really tiny samples! and include "polybenzene", "polyacetonitrile", "polyacetylene" in collaboration with Tom Fitzgibbons (PSU) and Hayan Zheng (HPSTAR), respectively. I am also working with Tim Strobel and his team on some really fascinating compounds that spontaneously polyermize at high P and ~ ambient T. I have also been developing micro-extraction and GC-MS analysis of such crazy polymers- solved this for polybenzene (in prep) and working on other systems.