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UTD Geoscientist Searches for Diamonds
Chemical Signature May Reveal Gem-Bearing Rock
RICHARDSON, Texas (Sept. 8, 2003) - With the tenacity of Indiana Jones hot on the trail of the Holy Grail, Matt Leybourne stalks his quarry through the rugged terrain of northern Ontario. He samples groundwater, looking for clues to locate the object of his search - diamonds.
Funded in part by a grant from the Canadian government, Leybourne, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), and a colleague, Beth McClenaghan of the Geological Survey of Canada (Natural Resources Canada), have been hard at work the past few years in the laboratory and in the field, trying to perfect a previously untested method of detecting the presence of diamonds. The pair, along with other researchers and students from institutions in Canada and the United States, examine the chemistry of groundwater, looking for anomalies and a telltale chemical “signature” that might reveal the location of gem-bearing rock.
"Water ultimately gets its chemistry from rock - it flows through it and interacts with it," said Leybourne, who describes himself as an "aqueous geochemist," or one concerned with the chemistry of water. "By analyzing the composition of groundwater, we can learn a great deal about the rock through which it has traveled."
The specific rock Leybourne and his colleagues are seeking is Kimberlite — volcanic material that millions of years ago was quickly thrust from deep in the Earth's mantle to the surface, often carrying with it diamonds and other minerals.
"Big Kimberlite deposits are found in South Africa and Australia, which, not coincidentally, produce most of the world's diamonds," Leybourne said. "In the early 1990s, geologists in Canada found significant Kimberlites in the Northwest Territories, which have since yielded large amounts of diamonds."
According to Leybourne, two mines have been established at the site of those discoveries and in just the past five years, Canada has gone from producing almost no diamonds to 10 percent of the world’s total production of gem-quality stones. That number conceivably could rise if the UTD professor's research ultimately bears fruit.
Leybourne and his colleagues focus their search on a remote stretch of land south of James Bay, near the Ontario-Quebec border, where Kimberlite is known to exist.
"We sample water from wells and look at springs and seeps to pick up the geochemical signature of Kimberlite - highly alkaline water with elevated levels of potassium and depressed levels of magnesium among other anomalous levels of trace elements," Leybourne said. "Once we detect water with that composition, we should be able to track backwards to find the Kimberlite."
Leybourne and fellow researchers are still perfecting the art of studying an area's hydrology to find diamonds. While some of the work is done in laboratories at UTD and elsewhere, visits to the field are indispensable. Leybourne made one such visit last summer, while one of his graduate students, Jamil Sader, has made two journeys to the Ontario site.
"The technique is a new one - no one else is using this approach, as far as we know," Leybourne said. "If it proves to be successful it likely won't be a panacea in the hunt for diamonds, but potentially another tool in the explorationist's toolkit."
When the project in Canada is finished, Leybourne may set his sights on something closer to home.
"There are rock formations in Arkansas and Colorado similar to those we are working on in Canada," Leybourne said. "I may go after some National Science Foundation funding and bring my research there."
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This page last updated August 11, 2003