WT: Congratulations Ben on being selected as one of the Top 40 Under 40 in Calgary as the first Calgary researcher to be part of NASA's Mars ScienceLaboratory Curiosity Rover Team! . Also, in 2022, you were awarded the Mineralogical Society of America Award.
You Chair the Ocean Observatory Council, as well.
These are outstanding recognitions. Please introduce yourself to our viewers giving us insights into your areas of research, and why rocks, water, climate change and life on Mars are your motivation.
Tutolo: I grew up in Pennsylvania, USA, and did my undergraduate degree in Environmental Systems Engineering at Penn State University. I was, and still am, interested in environmental problems—particularly in water resources.
As an undergrad I was given the opportunity to participate in a series of geology-focused research projects at U of Minnesota where my PhD focused on efforts to store large amounts of carbon dioxide in deep subsurface, something that I continue to work on to this day.
I moved to the University of Oxford in a two-year study working to understand the rates at which clay minerals grow, and implications of these growth rates for interpreting the geological record.
In 2017 I took up an assistant professorship at the University of Calgary. My research has ranged widely but the common thread that unites all this work is the importance of water-rock interactions for the long-term geologic evolution on both Earth and Mars.
My students and I have been working to evaluate the potential for large-scale carbon dioxide storage in geologic formation underlying Alberta as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Another example of our study of hydrothermal vents along Earth’s mid-ocean ridge system (the Juan de Fuca Ridge off the coast of Vancouver Island) and understanding how water-rock interactions in these systems have evolved over Earth’s history.
WT: Please tell us about your work on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover. What was your proposal? What has that led to?
Tutolo: I work with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team to interpret mineralogical and geochemical record of habitability at Gale Crater, Mars.
My proposal to work on this mission ultimately focused on combining my lab’s unique approach to quantifying the rates of water-rock interaction as a novel way of interpreting the data that Curiosity sends back from Mars.
To date, I have been part of a couple of papers coming out of the MSL team, largely focused on mineralogical discoveries that we have made on the surface of Mars and what they mean for the planet’s ancient climate.
We just published a paper about the discovery of the mineral starkeyite, which is similar to the Epsom salt used in baths.
The fact that we saw this very easy-to-dissolve mineral on Mars suggests that a large amount of evaporation must have occurred, probably associated with Mars’ transition from ‘warm and wet’ to ‘cold and dry’.
I am also working on understanding carbon sequestration recorded in the sediment of Gale Crater. It's really a ‘full circle’ in terms of bringing my research on Mars back to problems I also focus on here on Earth.
WT: What is the Solid Carbon Project?
Tutolo: The Solid Carbon partnership is a high risk/high reward effort to develop a climate change solution capable of sequestering billions of tons of CO2 in the rocks underlying Earth’s oceans. As part of this project, I am working with an international team of engineers, geoscientists, and policy specialists to combine unique negative emissions technologies (renewable energy-powered carbon capture) with the natural geochemical process of carbon materialization in the basaltic oceanic crust.
WT: You have been described as having an innovative and multifaceted approach to research. Please give us an overview of other areas of your research that have transformed the way scientists now think of mineral transformations and aqueous fluids.
Tutolo: I have done a lot of research on serpentinization – a geochemical reaction that occurs when the igneous rocks that characterize Earth’s mantle and portions of the surface of Mars, are exposed to water.
This work has yielded widely recognized insights into its fundamental underpinnings and planetary implications. For example, in a 2016 study, I used nuclear reactor-based neutron scattering techniques to analyze “serpentinite” rocks to show solve a longstanding mystery in the field.
In essence, this work showed that the technically “impossible” alteration of these virtually impermeable rocks is actually facilitated by previously unrecognized, tiny voids in the rock that had been overlooked because they are impossible to see using most typical imaging techniques.
Building on this, I used unique experiments and high-performance numerical models to show that serpentinization, and by extension, many other water-rock reactions must be considered in a new way, wherein reaction progress is intimately coupled to fluid movement and vice versa.
As a graduate student, I made the simple observation that geochemists simply do not know how fast clay minerals – the ubiquitous products of water-rock reactions on Earth and Mars—grow. I’ve worked to correct this by developing novel experimental techniques to produce a usable theoretical framework for predicting clay mineral growth rates.
These novel techniques and results are enabling Earth scientists to use clay mineral occurrences to interpret chemical conditions in ancient lakes on Earth and Mars and add to our growing understanding of what the occurrence of specific clay minerals means for the history of both planets.
In recent years, I have published a series of papers that work to understand how hydrothermal systems on Earth and Mars would have been different in the early days of both planets.
In one of these studies, I drew a link between the evolution of organisms in the oceans that make their skeletons out of silicon (diatoms) and diminished hydrogen production in seafloor hydrothermal systems.
This means that hydrothermal systems on the early Earth would have generated far less hydrogen than those on the modern earth.
At the other end of the spectrum, on Mars, I used a unique sampling of rocks from unusual serpentines in northern Minnesota to show that hydrothermal systems on early Mars would have generated around 5 times more hydrogen than those on Earth.
WT: Any other unique research that you would like to share with us?
Tutolo: Over the past several years, I have been increasingly focused on ocean-based climate solutions in addition to the sub-seafloor basalt carbonization technology. As part of a pilot scale project funded by Scotiabank Net Zero Research Fund, I have been working with electrochemists, engineers, and a law professor to explore a novel technology for modifying chemistry of the surface ocean and therby enhancing its ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.
We have shown this technology to be effective in both lab-scale experiments and numerical models and have launched a company (PEACH DACquiri) to scale up the technology.
WT: You certainly have several passions – including your work with children and the outreach in the Reactive Transport Research Group. Tell us more.
Tutolo: I have volunteered with the “Skype A Scientist” program for over three years and have spoken to hundreds of students about pathways into science and the fun, exciting ways that everyone can get involved in scientific discovery.
I have twice hosed a pair of high school students for a week in my lab as part of the STEM Fellowship Program, which is particularly appealing for its focus on attracting students into the sciences during the pivotal part of their lives when they are applying to attend university.
Overall, my outreach efforts have helped to educate students around North America and in the United Kingdom about the process of scientific discovery, the fascinating history of habitable environments on Earth and Mars, and the potential for geoscience-driven climate change solutions.
The overarching goal is to teach school-age children that anyone – regardless of background and regardles of whether they like being outdoors or wearing a lab coat – that anyone can be a scientist.
Viewers who would like to learn more are welcome to view my public presentations