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Ottawa museum obtains billion-year-old water sample from U of T geochemist

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Rebecca Dolgoy Water Sample
Rebecca Dolgoy, Ingenium’s curator of natural resources and industrial technologies, holds a tiny vial filled with ancient water. Photo credit: Pierre Martin, Ingenium.

In 2009, University of Toronto geochemist Dr. Barbara Sherwood Lollar and her team collected what was later proven to be the oldest-known flowing water on Earth, 2.4 km underground near Timmins, Ontario. Now, that sample will be part of a new collection at IngeniumCanada’s Museums of Science and Innovation in Ottawa.

The Canadian Precambrian Shield sample obtained from Kidd Creek Mine was analyzed for its geochemical and radiogenic fingerprints, as well as its sulfate-reducing, rock-eating microbes that live in the highly saline groundwaters.

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The water smells like sulfate and would taste extremely salty, as the ancient water has about three to 10 times the salinity of sea water.
Photo credit: Pierre Martin, Ingenium

“This evidence led to the conclusion that the water’s mean residence time was more than a billion years – from the Precambrian era,” states a description of the artifact by Ingenium, which received a silicate glass bottle of the ancient water from Lollar’s team earlier this year. “Like ancient rocks, this water brings messages from the Earth’s early days,” the museum adds.

The sample showed that it contained biologically useful chemicals and much more hydrogen gas than previously thought – conditions similar to those found near deep sea vents, which host thriving microbial ecosystems.

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Ingenium also received a sample of the type of rock that the chemolithotrophic (literally “rock-eating”) microbes in the water “eat,” and several items that were used in the collection and analysis of the water sample, including a field kit case and notebook.

More detailed explanations of the water sample can be found in Lollar’s published research.

Lollar told the museum that the water smells like sulfate and would taste extremely salty, as the ancient water has about three to 10 times the salinity of sea water.

“Obviously, I’ve learned not to say that I’m an isotope geochemist because it does tend to shut down the conversation,” Lollar said in a 2019 interview with The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. “What do I research? Well, I research water.”

Lollar won the Gerhard-Herzberg Gold Medal in Science and Engineering for her work on ancient water, as well as the prestigious NSERC John C. Polanyi Award.

“There are huge frontiers for exploration, as well as knowledge,” adds Lollar.

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