Spotlight: Ben Larson

Research Scientist

Ben LarsonThe oceanography bug first bit Ben while he was studying chemistry at Ohio State University. After having spent several years researching the tiny vibrations of chemical bonds in antiseptic vacuum chambers at temperatures near absolute zero, he was drawn to the world of deep-sea vents, where the temperatures are scorching, the pressures are skull crushing, and the interactions are of tectonic proportions. He’s been conducting research in hydrothermal chemistry ever since, using his expertise in gas chemistry, sensor development, and computer programming to shed light on the unique biogeochemical processes within the Earth’s crust.

Ben grew up in Cincinnati, OH and attended St. Xavier High School, where he developed an interest in chemistry and computers (back when people still titrated solutions manually and wrote code in Fortran 77), subject areas whose intricate underpinnings were well suited to his meticulous temperament. As an undergraduate at OSU, his affinity for detail led him into a laser spectroscopy lab where he studied the energy structure of chemical bonds.  It was in this basement laser lab that Ben discovered the limits of his love for minutiae, and decided he needed to expand his view of the world. This impulse led to bottom of the ocean and the alien world of hydrothermal vents, just the ticket for a midwestern kid with a penchant for science and an urge to explore.

In 1999, Ben entered graduate school in Oceanography at the University of Washington and joined Marv Lilley’s group where he worked on the development of an in-situ chloride sensor for the purpose of studying boiled fluids venting at temperatures in excess of 400°C. This project has since formed the basis for instruments populating cabled observatories at the Main Endeavour Field and Axial Volcano on the Juan de Fuca ridge. In addition to the sensor development work, Ben used gas chromatography to measure dissolved volatiles in under sea sensorhydrothermal fluid  (such as hydrogen), helping to capture  a more complete picture of the chemical signature of seawater circulating under extreme temperatures and pressures.

Ben earned his doctorate from UW in 2008, and after a brief stint as a science writer for The Oregonian, moved from the oceanic to the terrestrial environment and put his knowledge of multiphase flow to work at AltaRock Energy, a geothermal energy startup company based in Seattle. Here he discovered the Fortran programming language alive and well and powering a reactive transport computer code designed to model the flow and chemical reaction of high temperature geothermal fluids. Having found what seemed to be the perfect combination of coding, chemistry and hydrothermalism, Ben was anxious to return his focus to the deep sea. He did so in 2010 when he received a Ridge2000 postdoctoral fellowship and moved to University of Georgia. Here he worked with Christof Meile on reactive transport models of biogeochemical processes in diffuse hydrothermal flow, the lower temperature counterpart of the iconic black smoker vents. At the same time, he continued his work on high temperature flow, adapting the multiphase computer modeling techniques from the geothermal energy industry for use in simulating the higher temperature-pressure conditions characteristic of deep-sea vents.

Larson at seaWith the tools now in place to both measure and model boiling in super hot hydrothermal fluids and microbial metabolism in lower temperature hydrothermal environments, Ben returned to Seattle in 2013 to join forces with JISAO vent chemist Dave Butterfield. Between Dave’s encyclopedic knowledge of hydrothermal chemistry, Ben’s knack for computer programming and data processing, and the world class observatory under construction right next store, JISAO is poised to paint a more vivid picture than ever before of the remarkable hydrothermal world thriving underneath the seafloor just off the Washington Coast.