Seeking Solomon’s treasure

Posted by mjs76 at Mar 18, 2010 02:00 PM |
One of our Geologists went looking for seawater on a tropical island, but all he could find was tellurium and gold…

…which, you know, isn’t so bad.

Dr Gawen Jenkin from our Department of Geology was part of a University of Leicester/British Geological Survey expedition to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific (named after the legendarily wealthy Old Testament king because an early explorer found gold there).

The survey was actually looking for evidence of seawater in hot springs which produce boiling water and steam around Savo, a tiny volcanic island off the Northern tip of Guadalcanal which was last active in 1850.

Evidence of seawater would have indicated that this relatively young volcano was analogous to the Emperor gold deposit in Fiji (just 2,200km away as the albatross flies) with all the implications that would entail. Alas, despite employing all sorts of techniques to identify seawater, the contents of the springs proved to be, ultimately, rainwater. But negative results are important too in what they tell us.

Furthermore analysis of the spring revealed some surprises, such as a slightly alkaline pH, which is odd given the acidic nature of volcanic gasses. And gold – gold! Only about one part per million - so you would need a fair old amount for even one ear-ring - but that is still an economically viable amount.

Less obviously glamorous but possibly more exciting was tellurium present in concentrations of about 500 parts per billion. Tellurium (element number 52 in the periodic table) is one of the rarest elements on the planet and is an important component of solar panels so its value is likely to increase alongside demand for sustainable energy.

Dr Jenkin has co-written a very accessible report on the expedition for the Natural Environment Research Council’s PlanetEarth Online website. A related paper, co-authored with Gawen’s colleague Mike Petterson and others, was published last year by the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining in Applied Earth Science: IMM Transactions B.