Professor George Luther, a chemist in the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies, has been selected by the Geochemical Society to receive the 2004 Clair C. Patterson Award.
Researchers from Canada, Europe, and the United States nominated Luther for the award, which is bestowed upon scientists who have recently made “a particularly important and innovative breakthrough in environmental geochemistry, considered to be of fundamental significance.” The award, which includes a medal, a certificate, and an honorarium, will be presented to Luther this June at the society’s Goldschmidt Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Founded in 1955, the Geochemical Society is a private, non-profit international scientific organization that encourages the application of chemistry to solve geochemical and cosmological problems. It is affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Union of Geological Sciences.
The society’s nominating committee highlighted Luther’s “great talent in electrochemistry” and his development of new instrumentation to increase scientific understanding of the complex oxidation and reduction processes that occur in the waters and sediments of ecosystems ranging from freshwater lakes to deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
During the past several years, with funding from the Delaware Sea Grant College Program and the National Science Foundation, Luther has pioneered the development of gold-tipped electrode sensors that can be used in both marine and freshwater systems to rapidly and simultaneously measure a host of trace metals and chemical compounds that serve as key indicators of environmental health. Previous chemical sensors were capable of measuring only one element at a time.
In Delaware, Luther and his research team have used these sensors to determine the probable cause of fish kills that have occurred during the past few summers in Torquay Canal and Bald Eagle Creek, near northern Rehoboth Bay. The shallow waterways are pocked by deep holes that were created in the 1960s when the seafloor was mined to build up land for nearby housing developments. With the sensor’s help, Luther found that major rainstorms caused the water in these “deep holes” to overturn, bringing the poisonous hydrogen sulfide that forms in the stagnant bottom waters to the surface, threatening marine life.
More recently, Luther has worked with UD adjunct professor Donald Nuzzio, president of Analytical Instrument Systems, Inc., in Flemington, New Jersey, to adapt the sensor for use in a high-tech chemical analyzer system that has been deployed in the Black Sea and at hydrothermal vents nearly two miles deep in the Pacific Ocean. At the scalding-hot vents, the system may help scientists search out heat-loving microbes that are among the planet’s oldest life forms. These microbes also hold promise as biocatalysts in high-temperature, high-pressure industrial applications such as food processing and drug manufacturing.
The committee also recognized Luther’s enthusiasm for his research and his willingness to share it with others. “George has unselfishly and enthusiastically interacted with colleagues across a range of disciplines, including biologists, geologists, environmental chemists, environmental managers, and public policy makers,” they wrote. “His unabashed enjoyment for his research draws a steady stream of beneficiaries of all ages and educational backgrounds to his lab to learn environmental geochemistry.”
Luther has been on the faculty of the UD College of Marine Studies since 1986 and was named the Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Marine Studies in 2000. Among his many contributions, he has served as the college’s associate dean, advised 30 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and published more than 165 scientific articles.