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Geology research team receives National Science Foundation funds

The National Science Foundation awarded a New Mexico State University geology professor $30,000 to continue work on the eruptive products of the supervolcano located in the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Valles Caldera is an ancient analogue of the active Yellowstone volcano located in Yellowstone National Park. The research will determine if eruptible magma existed over an extended period of time by evaluating whether the products of different eruptions possess a genetic relationship. If there is a genetic relationship between eruptions, a tentative timetable of activity could be potentially predicted.

"If Valles Caldera is eruptible, we should probably know about it with it being located so close to Los Alamos National Laboratory," said Frank Ramos, principal investigator on the research grant and assistant professor in the department of geology. "Imagine having a nuclear repository at Yellowstone."

The research focuses on documenting the chemical characteristics of crystals in the pumice rock deposits erupted at 1.6 and 1.25 million years ago. Ramos has already taken two trips to sample deposits from the northern New Mexico volcano, one from each eruption. He and his students hope to determine if crystals were remobilized in newer eruptions.

Ramos, in collaboration with John Wolff, a professor at Washington State University, uses thermal ionization mass spectrometry to characterize isotope signatures of single mineral crystals and examine the relationships between the crystals in the different volcanic rocks. Graduate students from each university as well as an undergraduate researcher from NMSU are working on the project.

With recent renovations made to Gardiner Hall on the NMSU campus, Ramos will have a new metal-free "clean lab" with filtered air and water supplies in which to dissolve and purify crystals prior to analysis. In addition, a new mass spectrometer facility will house the thermal ionization mass spectrometer. Ramos helped design the lab, specifically intended to minimize contamination during sample preparation. It will afford his team's research efforts space for continued work on crystals as well as other rock, mineral and biological materials.

Ramos and his students will make at least one more trip to Valles Caldera this summer to collect more rock and mineral samples.