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Theme 4: Sustainability, Resources & Society

The environmental impacts of our way of living become increasingly visible in the news and take an increasing share in the political agendas of western countries. Many societal questions on the sustainable production and use of energy, food, water, etc. relate to Earth Science.

The research we conduct at VU Earth Science is primarily fundamental, but contributes directly or indirectly to several of the sustainable development goals of the United Nations, including “affordable and clean energy”, “climate action”, “Responsible consumption and production”, “Life and land” and “Life below water”.  Our research in Theme 4 explores novel applications of fundamental Earth Science knowledge and measurement techniques to societal questions on the sustainable use of natural resources and the monitoring and mitigation of climate change.       

Besides research that relates to contemporary societies, Theme 4 also focuses on the scientific analysis of archaeological material, cultural heritage, and forensic research. Archaeology is undergoing a Third Science Revolution in a move to more quantitative research methods. The use of stable and radiogenic isotope analysis in the last 30 years has radically enhanced the interpretative potential of environmental archaeological remains. In addition to contributing to our understanding of ancient population dynamics, the social implication of the research is of paramount importance. The data we accumulate, the mechanisms we identify, and the network we mobilise enable us to use the living past to meet the challenges that Europe and the world faces today. 

The tendency for isotope analysis to become an indispensable method in archaeological research has continued in cultural heritage research and forensic investigation. The Isotope Archaeology & Forensics group at VU is the only research unit in the Netherlands with the requisite staff, experience, and facilities to carry out these varied geochemical analyses.

Current topics that receive special attention in our group are:

  • The energy transition: the use and environmental implications of novel techniques to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including geothermal energy and below ground carbon storage. 
  • Climate and air quality monitoring: the environmental impacts of air pollutants and the use of atmospheric monitoring to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Circular economy: the environmental implications of the increasing demand for natural resources, such as rare earth elements (in batteries for example) and water.
  • Waste recycling: the study of microbial processes in soils in search for sustainable methods to promote the circular use of resources.        
  • Isotope archaeology: the use of Earth science methods to study provenance, palaeomobility, palaeodiet, and links to past climate changes.   
  • Forensic science: the use of stable and radiogenic isotope systems to aid the identification of unknown individuals by providing information on their geographical origin and dietary preferences. Research is also focussed on the damaging effect of diagenesis on bone and hair, and implications for the applicability of the isotope methods in forensic cases.
  • Cultural heritage: the application of state-of-the-art methods to quantify the processes used in the manufacture, degradation, and preservation of museum objects, such as paintings, ceramics and glass, and metal objects.