University of Arizona geologist digs her way to the top

Published: Mar. 3, 2021 at 6:39 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Dr. Isabel Barton said her passion for geology might as well be genetic.

“Both of my grandfathers were geologists,” Barton said.

Just like some of the minerals she hunts for, finding women in this field is rare.

“I think as a percentage of the total mining workforce, women are between 10 to 20% nationally. It is still mostly a male dominated industry,” Barton said.

Now Barton is breaking through barriers on the ground and in the workforce where she is the only female faculty member in the department of mining and geological engineering at the University of Arizona.

Barton is also an expert in geometallurgy.

“My goal with the research is to try to make our extraction and processing of critical green energy metals more efficient and less wasteful,” Barton said.

Barton said the good stuff was mined out centuries, and in some cases, decades ago.

“What is left to meet the energy and metal demands of the future are deep, complicated, mineralogically tough to deal with and sometimes chemically pretty nasty,” Barton said.

Thanks to new technology, analyzing samples is faster and more efficient than ever before. Still, Barton said she faces challenges.

“It is so interdisciplinary that nobody knows what to do with it. I can probably wallpaper a small room if I printed out in quote marks all of the times I have been told this is really interesting research, but it doesn’t fit within our scope,” Barton said.

Barton’s perseverance just paid off. She won a 2021 National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the foundation’s most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty. The recognition comes with a $500,000 grant to support her research and outreach.

“My first thought after I got over the initial surprise was really a sense of appreciation,” Barton said.

With this financial support, Barton will work to meet the growing demand for metal used in green energy like solar cells and wind turbines.

“Let’s take solar panels,” Barton said. “The semiconducting elements they are physically made out of, all of those are huge demands on metals that weren’t there before. So, we are effectively substituting green metals for fossil fuels.”

When Barton is not in the field, she teaches an undergraduate course cross-listed in mining and anthropology that explores nonrenewable resources through a historic lens.

Discussion ranges from the role of bronze in ancient empire-building, and coal coking in medieval China, to minerals that can power green energy today and the future of space mining.

“I do use a historical framework to present students with some pretty technical information and it goes over a lot better. They find it a lot less intimidating when they are not being told, here’s your equations, go solve this,” Barton said.

Click here to learn more about Barton and her award.

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