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To understand the bigger picture, Dr. Oliver Plümper focuses on very small things: the geoscientist studies minerals that are components of rocks. But what stories do these components tell – and how do they help us understand the secrets of our planet Earth? To find this out, Plümper relies on engineering and technology: microscopes – and artificial intelligence.
Plümper very clearly remembers the moment of decisive change in his professional life. It was in the mid-2000s while studying geosciences at the University of Münster. “When I saw atoms under a microscope for the first time, these tiniest particles that determine the big picture of planet Earth,” he says, “something just clicked. That’s when I realized: this is the field I want to work in.” His mother, by the way, tells this story a little differently. “She says that when I was a kid, I used to crawl into every hole in the ground and take a good look at everything,” Plümper reports, laughing.
Either way, microscopes or holes, both are important parts of his work today. Plümper did indeed become an earth scientist and associate professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, which has one of the world’s largest and most respected faculties in the field. For more than 20 years now, he has been involved in figuring out planet Earth. Today, he is one of the most renowned geoscientists in Europe and has been on expeditions all over the world: from the Indian Ocean to the north of Norway.
On these big expeditions, he’s particularly taken with the tiniest things: minerals, the smallest components on the rock scale. “I want to understand how the Earth works,” Plümper says. “And the very small processes in and on the surface of minerals are what dictate the very large processes of the Earth. This fascinates me.”
But to get to the bottom of these processes and gain insights from them, the scientist uses high-tech. The key to insights invisible to the human eye lies in microscopy. However, this centuries-old technique has been revolutionized by digitalization. Artificial intelligence (AI) is currently playing a crucial role in this. AI is the fuel of digital progress and makes reality out of what was once fiction. Plümper benefits from this achievement – and ZEISS makes it accessible to him.
I want to understand how the Earth works. And the very small processes in and on the surface of minerals are what dictate the very large processes of the Earth. This fascinates me.
The work of intelligent microscopy begins when the scientist returns from an excursion and examines what they have brought back under the microscope in the laboratory. “In the process, we generate gigabytes to terabytes of data. Artificial intelligence is enormously important for processing this data,” says Plümper. For example, in image segmentation. Microscopy produces a large number of images – and thus a large data set. Trained appropriately, AI can recognize and segment features in the complex 2D or even 3D images. Much faster and more accurately than conventional image analysis.
As in many fields, artificial intelligence is used in microscopy in many ways. “There are areas in which the technology has already developed very far,” says Plümper. One example is the networking of individual instruments. Put simply, the scientist moves a sample from one microscope to the other along with the digital information that has already been captured. The new information is added – and with the help of artificial intelligence can be interpreted directly in the context of the knowledge already gained. What’s more, digitalization also makes it possible to network with scientists around the world, to join forces and look at a sample together. “Microscopy is not just about taking a picture. It also involves continuing to work with it,” says Plümper: “Interpreting images quantitatively, that's a point where AI steps in.”
The scientist sees potential for intelligent microscopy in quantum computing. “The quantities of data are getting bigger and bigger. Computing power is a game changer when it comes to processing them,” he says. So far, however, the technology would not be an option for him because although it can process data quickly, it cannot store it. The geologist also sees opportunities in the field of robotics: “Maybe at some point a robot will help us to operate microscopes better,” he says. But even today, this is still fiction.
Back in reality, the geoscientist is not only interested in understanding the world – but also in improving it sustainably. Intelligent microscopy and the associated technologies such as artificial intelligence are helping him to achieve this. For example, he is currently investigating underwater volcanoes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. These hydrothermal vents spew tiny nanoparticles into the ocean. “We are currently looking at what influences these particles have on the ocean and what we can learn from them, for example for industrial production,” explains Plümper. For example, new raw materials could be researched that are created when the particles are repelled into the sea. The fascinating thing is that “the eruption of underwater volcanoes is a huge process, but what comes out in the end are tiny particles,” he says.
Earthquakes also determine part of his work. However, he says, these forces of nature are particularly difficult to study. Nevertheless, Plümper and his colleagues are tackling the issue. “Earthquakes are processes that occur inside the Earth but have an effect on us humans,” he says. “So it’s important to understand what’s going on.”
Climate change also concerns the scientist. “We’re looking at the water and carbon cycles over a long period of time,” Plümper says. He needs microscopes for that, too, because carbon is stored in tiny components: minerals. “But how is it stored and how is it released? That’s what we’re trying to find out with the help of microscopy,” Plümper explains. Another aspect in this connection is the topic of CO2 storage: because if minerals store water inside them, why not also climate-damaging carbon dioxide? These are questions that he is investigating – and where microscopy, digitalization and AI are a great help.
We need to understand the very small things in order to be able to influence the very big picture.
He therefore sees continued relevance for his work. “It’s always important to know how the Earth works,” Plümper says, “because processes that happen inside the Earth have an effect on us humans.” Why are we here? Why is the Earth the way it is? Why are we able to live here? “The answers to all these questions are found inside the Earth,” the scientist explains. It is also these aspects that drive him. His ambition: “We need to understand the very small things in order to be able to influence the very big picture.” This is another reason why he passes on his knowledge: to the students at Utrecht University, but in the future also to his two-year-old son, to whom he wants to leave a planet worth living on.
We live from the Earth, he says: in the past from oil and gas, in the future from raw materials for renewable energies: metals that come from the Earth. “We have to mine these well and use them sustainably. We only have this one planet – our Earth,” says Plümper. On this point, he moves from the small to the large. Quite the opposite to microscopy.