Understanding What Moves Mountains

Kenny Beful
Kenny Befus, PhD
Assistant Professor of Geosciences

Volcanoes are Kenny Befus’ vocation; gemstones have long been an avocation. Befus, PhD, and his team measure tectonic and volcanic forces from his Baylor lab. During his free time, Befus enjoys exploring mining tunnels — hunting and faceting gemstones. He has earned the title of Master Faceter from the U.S. Faceting Guild.

Befus found an innovative way to combine his interest in both his vocation and his avocation, and the NSF rewarded his insight with a CAREER grant.

Subsurface geological forces influence volcanic activity, raise mountains, shift continents and more. Understanding these dynamic processes could allow for better preparation ahead of hazards and natural disasters. 

These major forces cannot be measured directly, however, and that is where gems and minerals fit in. The dynamic environment tectonic and volcanic forces create puts stress on minerals and gems, which have crystalline structures.

Befus posits that these crystal strains, if identified and measured, provide quantifiable records of geological forces. His team focuses on crystals ejected in volcanic eruptions.

“Geologic processes occur when there is an imbalance of force,” Befus said. “Force drives everything, but it’s really the imbalance of force that causes things to change. We can’t see geologic processes though, because they are going on underground or in places that are really dangerous, like a lava flow. My hypothesis is that maybe crystals that are in these rocks are recording those forces.”

Befus measures these strain fingerprints through innovative spectroscopy and diffraction techniques. Strained crystals produce diffraction patterns with stretched, smeared or misplaced spots. Each spot can be measured to determine the type of deformation that caused the strain. 

From Yellowstone National Park to the Amazon rainforest, Befus has traveled the world and accrued a variety of samples. The NSF is investing in his work, believing it will serve as the start of a new way to view gems and geoscience and evaluate volcanic activity.

The educational component of Befus’ grant provides for the formation of a gemstone class at Baylor.

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