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PhD in Mining and Minerals Engineering  [October 7, 2019]

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall, UK

Impacts of weathering, redox cycling and microbial activity on the formation of kaolinite (china clay). PhD in Mining and Minerals Engineering (NERC GW4 + DTP) Ref: 3670

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see http://nercgw4plus.ac.uk/

Project Background

Do microbes help make china clay? Kaolin minerals are very important economic resources; so much so that china clay has sometimes been referred to as “white gold”. Understanding how kaolin minerals form and behave in the environment is important because not only are they valuable economically, they also transport metals and nutrients to the ocean, can be used to remediate pollutants, and have been identified on the surface of Mars. Large kaolin deposits form from granites, either by hydrothermal alteration or by surface weathering in areas with temperate climates and high rainfall. Kaolin minerals also form in soils in intensely weathering environments. Kaolinization is thought to be triggered by the oxidation of iron(II) in biotite, and this has been linked to the activity of iron(II)-oxidising microorganisms. However, microbial iron(II) oxidation at neutral pH tends to occur in relatively narrow zones of redox interfaces rather than over tens of metres, which raises questions about its significance in economic kaolin deposits. This project will test the hypothesis that microbial redox cycling of iron contributes to kaolin formation in near surface environments, and therefore stimulating microbial redox cycling will increase the rate of kaolinization.

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