Progress & life in Germany

With just three weeks left in Hannover, an update on my research is due! I also wanted to write a little on life in Germany as living in a country always offers a different flavor than visiting as a tourist does. Having just returned from a vacation to the Netherlands and southern Germany, I now have experienced both sides!

Research update

Wrapped capsules ready to go for an experiment. I need to make detailed sample maps so I know which capsule is which when I take them out of the vessel.

My first month of research in Hannover, Germany, went pretty well! After running a couple test runs in the vessels my first experiment was completed during the week of June 18-21, with the second finishing up the following week. In between experiments I was busy in the lab mixing up rock powders, measuring the water content in the test experiments, and loading capsules for the three remaining experiments. As with anything that involves the use of mechanical equipment, however, we have run into an issue with one of the vessels that I need to use for one of the five total experiments: the furnace is broken! The furnaces on these vessels enable us to reach the high, stable temperatures necessary to simulate conditions deep in Earth’s crust. When working properly, these furnaces maintain the desired temperature inside the vessel to within just a couple degrees, which is very accurate and important for the experimental set-up, design, and reproducibility. If we can’t know the temperature accurately, our entire experiment is up in the air as we can’t record the conditions and the composition inside the capsule could change as temperature is a main variable that controls the stable mineral phases. So a broken furnace is a big problem! The team here at Leibniz University is working on fixing it so I’m hoping the vessel is back online next week or that I can run my experiment in a different vessel. Other than that, my 4th experiment is scheduled to run this week in a working vessel so I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have three weeks left in my research stay in Hannover so I’m pretty confident I’ll get the last two experiments finished in time!

Temperature fluctuations due to a broken furnace — the blue and green lines are supposed to be flat and follow the straight black line!
Two sample mounts of completed experiments, polished perfectly flat and coated with carbon. The compositions of the glass matrix in these experiment pieces were measured in the Electron Probe. Again, detailed maps tell me which sample is which!

Last Thursday and Friday I was busy collecting data on my three completed experiments using an Electron Probe Micro-Analyzer here at Leibniz University, which is basically a big, fancy microscope that shoots a beam of high energy electrons at your sample. These electrons cause the atoms in the sample to release x-rays that are characteristic of the elements present. The Electron Probe computer then does some corrections and math behind the scenes and spits out a detailed reading of the composition of the sample. This type of analysis is very common in geology because you can zoom in very far and get in situ measurements of tiny minerals or sample material. To use the Electron Probe, I first had to prepare my completed experimental run products by taking the pieces out of the capsule, mounting them in epoxy, and polishing them to a flat surface so the electron beam in the Probe hits the sample head on. The polished surface has to be coated with a thin layer of carbon before analysis to counteract the build-up of negative charge on the sample due to the electron beam, which would cause the calculated compositions to fluctuate over time. Once all the samples are in the Electron Probe, I first have to check that the computer is calculating correctly by measuring some standards of known composition and seeing how the measurements compare to what is expected. Finally, I go through my samples and select the points I want to analyze and program the Electron Probe to start analyzing.

For this 2-day session I focused on measuring the compositions of the glass matrix of my experiments. In my run products I have apatite crystals, sometimes sulfide crystals, and a glass matrix that represents the magma from which the apatite and other minerals crystallize from as the magma cools and solidifies into rock. This glass matrix and the apatite crystals are what I’m most interested in, so obtaining accurate compositions for both is very important and key to my study. For the glass measurements, I analyzed a suite of 12 elements: silicon, aluminum, iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium, titanium, potassium, sodium, phosphorous, chlorine, and sulfur. Most of these are routine measurements on the Electron Probe, and my most difficult element to analyze was sulfur because it is present in pretty low concentrations. I had 9 total samples to measure and programmed 20-30 glass spots on each. As each spot took 7 minutes to analyze, it took all of the two days to collect the data! Luckily the Electron Probe did a good job and didn’t have any crises or problems so I was able to get all the data I had hoped for and now have the task of going through it all. So a successful probe session that will tell me the compositions of the matrix glasses for 3 sets of experiments!

Life in Germany

View of one of the paths in the park near my dorm. Beautiful trees and miles of paths!

Besides the language, the first thing I noticed that was different between the US and Germany is how people get around both within the city and between cities. It is definitely true that Germans ride bikes much more than Americans do to travel within the city. The sidewalks have two sections distinguished by different brick types: one half for pedestrians and a strip for bicycles. This ensures that bikes have a dedicated space and is a great concept for bike routes along busy streets where no actual bike lane exists, but it does take a bit as a pedestrian to learn to stay out of this lane and watch for bicycles as well as cars when crossing a street! Bikes are also everywhere in the city, and there are many, many bike racks that are always full around the university. For longer distance traveling, the train and bus systems are very good. Regional trains go everywhere in and near Hannover, and the larger trains do a fantastic job of connecting cities and countries in Europe. The ICE trains can travel over 185 mph! It can be a little expensive, but traveling by train is pretty convenient here.

At Leibniz University, there are many international researchers and students that come from all over the world. While some have picked up the German language, many only know a little German and so many meetings and seminars are conducted in English. Most Germans speak good English, but they definitely prefer German and many of the lab procedures and announcements are in German. As a visiting student I’ve gotten a lot of help from the other master’s and PhD students here, and they have really been instrumental in my success so far! The Institute for Mineralogy here at Leibniz University has amazing experimental petrology facilities and a large staff of researchers and technicians dedicated to helping rock experiments go well. This is a big contrast to the Earth Department at U-Michigan, where only a small percentage of the department does high temperature/high pressure experiments.

Hannover as a city is alright. It’s mostly a university and working city, with few tourist attractions drawing visitors. Out of the 500,000 residents, I heard that over half are students at one of the many universities! The city center has tons of shops and restaurants, and I’m glad to live a bit removed from it. I have really enjoyed the many parks the city has, especially the large one a block from the university. It has lots of dirt and some paved paths for biking, running, roller blading, or walking and is always full of people. The large grassy areas host many BBQ’s, games, and gatherings so Germans really do utilize their parks! On nice days you can hardly find a spot on the grass to hang out. Something else that is different here than in the US is that everything but a few restaurants are closed on Sunday’s. Germans value family time on the weekends and Sunday’s are dedicated solely to spending time with family and friends – you can’t even find an open grocery store. Things really slow down and the city feels as though it’s taking a nap every Sunday, which is nice to recharge and relax before the next week.