Kun Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, will receive the European Association of Geochemistry’s 2020 Houtermans Award at this year’s Goldschmidt conference. The F.G. Houtermans Award recognizes exceptional contributions to geochemistry by scientists within 12 years of starting their PhD.
Wang was selected for the award based on his recent work on reviving potassium (K) isotopes as a tool for geochemistry and cosmochemistry studies. Because of the difficulty in measuring K isotopes, an earlier study had concluded that there was no measurable variation in nature. Using new methods, Wang and his team put potassium back on the map in a series of breakthrough papers.
“After a 1995 paper concluded that there was no measurable K isotopic variation in nature, people stopped studying K isotopes,” Wang said. “20 years later, in 2016, my colleagues and I published the first paper reporting a new method we developed to measure K isotopes in high precision (one order of magnitude better than 1995). Because of this new development in K analysis, K isotopes have become a new tool for geochemistry and cosmochemistry.”
Recently, the team has used their analytical methods to gain insights into the giant impact event that formed the Moon and the formation of tektites. Currently, they’re using K isotopes to study Martian volatiles with an eye on changing scientists’ assumptions about the water content of Mars.
Wang and his team also redefined the atomic mass of potassium, which they hope will be adopted by the IUPAC and incorporated into the new version of periodic table.