For Franklin & Marshall College sophomore Nathan Miller, the research project before him is molybdenum, number 42 on the Periodic Table of Elements. More specifically, conducting experiments to figure out how molybdenum works its way into ocean sediments.
“Essentially, we try to synthesize what we hope are compounds similar to what’s in the sediment, specifically iron sulfides,” the chemistry major said.
Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Morford explained that to understand how molybdenum made its way into ocean sediment is to understand changes in the marine environment.
“When tree rings grow, they record to some extent the conditions that were around the tree when that part of the tree grew,” Morford said. “You can tell things like changes in precipitation by looking at each tree ring. Marine sediments accumulate in the same way, and as marine sediments accumulate, they’re telling us something about past conditions.
“Molybdenum happens to be a trace metal that is found to vary over time and so the idea is that it’s mostly in the aqueous or liquid phase in the presence of oxygen, but when there’s a lot of sulfide around, molybdenum ends up in a solid phase. If you get an ocean sediment core, and you look at these variations over time, you understand something about past conditions. So, you can only understand something about past conditions if you understand how molybdenum got there in the first place. And did it stay once it got there?”
Since marine environments are messy and complicated, work is done in the lab, where Miller made a few hundred milligrams of particles with different amounts of molybdenum, iron and sulphur.
“What form molybdenum is in and exactly how it is captured is still a big unknown,” Morford said. “Probably for the last 20 years, people have been coming up with different hypotheses for how they thought this process might be happening.”
Last summer, using instrumentation at the Penn State Materials Characterization Lab in State College, Miller studied his synthesized particles to look at the different interactions between molybdenum, iron and sulfide. Morford said they suspect iron molybdenum-sulfide-minerals might be occurring on the nanoscale.
For Miller, the hands-on research experience has him considering graduate school.
“I’m doing a puzzle, and I don’t care what the puzzle is a picture of; I care that I’m doing the puzzle, and I enjoy that,” he said. “I get to play around in the spaces we’re diving into, sometimes diving headfirst into, and being able to answer core questions and raise new questions.”