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Electrical Signals in the Earth: from natural geobatteries to active sensors of microbial processes

Categories: Materials Science and Engineering (MSE)
Speaker: Lee Slater
Date & Time: October 16, 2012 - 12:10pm
Location: CCR 201
Abstract: Geophysical measurements are extensively used to non-invasively detect variations in the physical and
chemical properties of the constituents forming the Earth. Pioneering research over the last decade has now
demonstrated the sensitivity of geophysical imaging techniques to microbial-induced changes in the subsurface over
variable spatial and time scales. 'Biogeophysical' signatures may arise from(!) microbial cells in geologic media,
(2) the interaction between microorganisms and subsurface geologic media, and (3) alteration of the physical
properties of geologic media as a result of microbial activity. In this talk, I describe how measurements of the
electrical and magnetic properties of the Earth are particularly diagnostic ofthe presence of microbial activity. I
describe the basis of the 'complex conductivity' and 'self potential' electrical measurements as applied to study
microbial processes in emth materials both in the laboratory and in the field setting. I show how biomineralization
processes, such as those that are being investigated to promote sequestration ofradionuclides and heavy metals in
the Emth, generate unique complex conductivity and magnetic susceptibility signatures. I also present compelling
field-scale evidence for the existence of a natural geobattery in the Earth suppmted by microbial activity associated
with the biodegradation of a mature oil spill. Self potential measurements define a natural current source, with
anodic and cathodic reactions below and above the oil respectively. Iron minerals, possibly facilitated by electronic
conduction between bacterial cells, presumably facilitate electron transport between anode and cathode required to
support this geobattery. I finish by discussing possible future applications of such electrical geophysical measurements
for non-invasive monitoring microbial processes in the Earth.

Lee Slater is a Professor ofNear Surface Geophysics and Interim Chair of the Department ofEmth & Environmental
Sciences at Rutgers-Newark, New Jersey, USA. He received his Ph.D. in Hydrogeophysics from Lancaster
University (U.K.) in 1997. He has coauthored over one hundred peer-reviewed publications on near surface and
environmental geophysics, and served as principal investigator on multiple awards from the National Science
Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Geological Survey totaling in excess
of $4.5 m of external research funding. Professor Slater served as Chair of the Near Surface Geophysics Focus
Group of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) from July 2008-June 2010, Associate Editor of the AGU journal
Water Resources Research from October 2004-December 2010 and Associate Editor of the Journal of Environmental
and Engineering Geophysics (JEEG) from 1999-2004. He recently served as guest Associate Editor of the
special issue on "Hydrogeophysics- Methods and Processes", European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers
(EAGE) journal of Near Surface Geophysics.

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