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Mangold ’20 Explores the Tiny World of Microspherules


Lucas Mangold, a rising senior from Greenwich, Conn., is spending the first weeks of summer break getting an early start on his thesis research. A geosciences major, he is analyzing local microspherules under the guidance of Professor of Geosciences Dave Bailey.

What is your research project?

Oftentimes in papers, people will reference microspherules (which mean “small spheres”) … They’re often cited as being evidence of an asteroid impact or a meteorite impact. The issue with that is that there’s a lot of manmade, anthropogenic causes. We make them in our own ways, and there are many ways you can do that.

First, coal-fired power plants release their smoke into their air, and along with that they release something called fly ash. Fly ash are tiny microspherules made of quartz, silica, and other lightweight minerals that vaporize upon combustion and then condense into a sphere, which is the most natural shape that happens upon condensation. Like a raindrop, for example. And they fall to the ground, but they’re so small that they can be carried very far away from the initial source. Meaning, you can find these spherules at sites thousands of miles away, which can contaminate your samples when you’re looking at things like possible impact events.

About Lucas Mangold ’20

Lab technician for the Geosciences Department; Hamilton College Orchestra percussionist; president of the Hamilton College Geological Society; radio DJ.

read about other summer research projects

My research is to find the best methods of discerning the origin of these microspherules found in the field. Distinguishing whether they are cosmic or manmade, using a scanning electron microscope, XRF (x-ray fluorescence) analysis, and microprobe analysis.

The ultimate goal of the project is to be able to publish our methods for distinguishing man-made microspherules from impact-related microspherules. This way other researchers can figure out for themselves what they’re looking at if they find these in their own samples. We believe microspherules are often used as evidence for an impact event when in reality they are just man-made contaminants.

How did you get involved in this project?

When I first came to Professor Bailey with an idea for my thesis, I was a little too ambitious. I wanted to look at the small particles of dust that snowflakes and raindrops form around. Unfortunately, those particles are way too small, but that had Dave thinking about these tiny little spheres he found while panning for sediment in a nearby creek. Looking at them under a scanning electron microscope, he did not know what they were, so he looked up microspherules and found this whole new world that exists around us. If you can find them panning in a creek, you can probably find them anywhere.

So, I did more research on those, became fascinated with the topic and this debate going around regarding where they came from and which human processes can form them and what distinguishes those that we make from those that are natural. There are a couple papers done on how to distinguish them, but they’re all very specific to their individual localities. I want to know if I can use that method of distinguishing to distinguish samples from across the world, and if that’s the case, then you can make a guide on how to figure out the origin of these things.

What do you do for your research?

Early on we researched the various industrial sites that we could go to. That included sifting through a list of all industry in upstate New York including those no longer used and currently used coal-fired power plants, and then making a large map, putting a pin in each of these locations, and determining the most efficient field trips that we could take to cover as many stations as possible.

Then we went into the field to collect samples, process and dry them, disaggregate them, (pluck out the silica spherules and use a magnet to take out the magnetic spherules) and then look at those because there’s a lot of magnetic non-spherules.

So, it’s going to be a lot of time looking under a microscope to isolate the spherules from the rest of the sediment, and then it’s going to be a lot of time spent looking with the scanning electronic microscope to determine if there’s a crystalline structure, and if there isn’t one, any telltale marks or indications that differentiate the fly ash from the cosmic.

Where will you go off campus?
  • Crucible Industries, a steel manufacturer in Syracuse. We’re hoping that the smelting process is going to generate metallic spherules, which will be easy to collect because they’re magnetic.
  • Covanta Onondaga, a waste energy plant, meaning they burn garbage and turn into electricity.
  • A site near Bell Creek, because that’s a Younger Dryas Age layer. If we find microspherules there, we can compare them to the research done on microspherules found halfway across the world and see if those are also contaminants.
  • A very small power station in Syracuse—the one that provides Utica College and Faxton St. Luke’s Hospital power.
  • And then probably most importantly, we’re going to the Cayuga power station, which is one of two remaining coal-fired power plants in New York. That is our best bet, because it’s the largest scale and it’s coal-fired, which is very well known to produce those fly ash spherules, so that’s the place we’re most hoping to find them.
Do you have an idea of what you want to do in your future?

I very much enjoy the academic side of geoscience. I can see myself working in a lab and doing research, but by no means am I tied to that, and would be interested in a career with the USGS or a state department of environmental protection.

What is your favorite rock or mineral?

There are so many good ones. If you’re making me pick one, garnet is the mineral that started my geoscience career, and I’ll tell you why:  My freshman year, I thought I was going to be an environmental studies major. I took Intro. to Geology with Dave, and for a field trip, we went to nearby Gore Mountain, which is also one of the world’s best garnet mines. Garnet is this beautiful, red, prism-shaped mineral that appears in massive clumps of this black substrate. It just pops—it’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful, and it’s all around, and I thought to myself, “I like this, and I want this to be my life. So, I became a geoscience major because of how incredible and how beautiful garnet is.”

Lucas Mangold is one of 200 Hamilton students who are conducting summer research or completing an internship supported by the College.

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