Dr. Graham Pearson

2016 Finalist: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

Diamonds as Scientific Windows into Earth

The University of Alberta has one of the world’s top diamond research groups, and at the heart of it is Dr. Graham Pearson. His work with diamonds has been responsible for several revolutionary innovations within the industry, and has led to Pearson becoming known as the world’s leading scientist in diamond studies.

Diamonds are far more useful than jewelry fans would believe. As Pearson explains, “we use diamonds as scientific windows into the deep Earth. They give a unique picture of parts of the Earth that would otherwise be impossible to access.”

Underground Oceans

Diamonds provide this unique view of the Earth through their specific minerals, such as ringwoodite. In 2014, Pearson’s team was the first group in the world to collect a ringwoodite sample. At very high pressure, this mineral makes up most of the Earth’s structure from 520 km to 670 km beneath the surface. Despite its abundant supply, ringwoodite had never been observed above the Earth’s surface due to its high pressure characteristics.

“Ringwoodite is a high pressure form of the mineral olivine, and due to the extreme pressures it’s crystalline structure is modified,” explains Pearson. “So if you extracted ringwoodite from within the Earth and brought it up to the surface, it would revert back into olivine.”

Pearson solved this issue by finding a diamond that included ringwoodite. Due to the intense pressure within a diamond, it prevented the ringwoodite from changing into olivine. The importance of this sample wasn’t the ringwoodite itself, but rather the water contained inside it.

“25 years ago, theoreticians started to speculate that ringwoodite might hold ocean volumes of water within the Earth,” explains Pearson. “Our sample proved this, because this piece of pure ringwoodite had almost the exact amount of water within it that it was predicted it should have.”

Exploring the Arctic

Pearson has focused much of his research efforts in the Arctic due to the abundance of resources located there. His work has created more jobs and has expanded a diamond industry already valued at more than $2 billion.

For example, Pearson’s research impacted the Arctic through his efforts to produce the first 4-D image of the deep lithosphere beneath Canada’s Arctic cratons. This will provide researchers with a much better understanding of the Arctic and aid future lithosphere studies. Once completed, this will make the Arctic the second place on Earth mapped out in such detail.

Creating a Conflict-Free World

Pearson has not only pursued the scientific aspect of diamonds but has also contributed to the ethical aspects. His work in the area of conflict diamonds (rough diamonds used by rebel movements to finance wars) has provided great advances to minimize the use of these diamonds throughout the world.

His expertise in this field has been sought out by many influential organizations, including the US National Security Council, the US National Economic Council and the White House Office of Science and Technology. His research has also helped establish Canada as a leader of the Kimberley Process, which is a joint effort between several governments to prevent the flow of conflict diamonds. This resulted in Pearson being elected to the Working Group of Diamond Experts of the Kimberley Process Committee.