Dr. Donald Sparks


  • B.S. Agronomy- 1975, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky
  • M.S. Soil Science-1976, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky
    M.S. Thesis – “Physical, mineralogical, and chemical properties, including ammonium distribution, in the Shrouts soils of Kentucky”
  • Ph.D. Soil Science – 1979, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,Blacksburg, Virginia
    Ph.D. Dissertation – “Potassium adsorption and desorption kinetics in a soil system and its relation to plant uptake”

Current Courses


Research in the Environmental Soil Chemistry Laboratory focuses on how toxic metals such as arsenic (As), nickel (Ni), and zinc (Zn) and plant nutrients such as phosphorus (P) and sulfur (S) are bound (sorbed) on soils. We conduct these studies under different environmental and experimental conditions (pH, time, temperature, hydration state, presence of microbes) to best represent the natural environment. We use bright light sources generated at syncrotron facilities (associated with National Laboratories) to determine the forms (species) of the metals and nutrients in the soil at the molecular scale. This information is necessary to make accurate predictions about how easily the contaminant will leach into the water supplies, and determine its toxicity and bioavailability to plants, animals, and humans. We also conduct speciation research on metal contaminated soils and on plants that accumulate large quantities of metals (hyperaccumulators). The resuls of these studies are useful in developing effective strategies for soil remediation.

Professional Activities

    Dr. Sparks served on the Scientific Advisory Committees of the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Center for Environmental Molecular Science (EMSI) at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the Steering Committee of the Institute of Soil and Environmental Quality (ISEQ) at the University of Delaware. Dr. Sparks has also served on several committees of the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences. He has consulted with a number of major industries.

  • American Society of Agronomy
  • Soil Science Society of America
  • International Union of Soil Sciences
  • American Chemical Society
  • Clay Minerals Society
  • The Geochemical Society
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Gamma Sigma Delta
  • Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society

Awards and Honors

Dr. Sparks has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors. In 1982, he was the recipient of the University of Delaware Potash Institute for his outstanding research on soil potassium. In 1985, he was recipient of the American Society of Agronomy’s Visiting Scientist Award and in 1986 he received the Research Award from the Northeastern Branch, American Society of Agronomy. In 1987, Dr. Sparks was elected Chairman of the Soil Chemistry Division (Div. S-2) of the Soil Science Society of America. In 1989, he was named a Fellow of both the American Society of Agronomy and the Soil Science Society of America, the most prestigious honors given by both societies. In 1991, he received the F.D. Chester Distinguished Performance Award from the College of Agricultural Sciences and the M.L. and Chrystie M. Jackson Soil Science Award from the Soil Science Society of America. In 1994, he was named Distinguished Professor of Soil Science, the first such professorship in the College of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Delaware. In 1994, Dr. Sparks also received the Soil Science Research Award from the Soil Science Society of America and was elected Vice-Chair (Commission II, Soil Chemistry) of the International Society of Soil Science. In 1996 Dr. Sparks was the recipient of the University of Delaware’s Francis Alison Award, which is the highest award that a faculty member can receive. The award is given for distinguished achievements in scholarship and one’s profession, teaching, dedication and service to the university, and mentoring of students. In 1997, Dr. Sparks was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1998, he was elected President of the Soil Science Society of America and Chairman of Div. 2 (Soil Chemistry) of the International Union of Soil Sciences. In 2000, he was selected as President-Elect of the International Union of Soil Sciences, and installed as President in 2002. In 2001, he received the prestigious McMaster Fellowship from CSIRO, Australia. In 2001, he was named the T. A. Baker Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences. In 2002, he received the University of Kentucky’s Chapter of Gamma Sigma Delta Outstanding Alumnus Award, was the first recipient of the University of Delaware’s Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Student Advising and Mentoring Award, and was named S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Plant and Soil Sciences. In 2003, he received the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievements in research from the Polish Society of Soil Science and the Environmental Quality Research Award from the American Society of Agronomy. In 2005, he was named the Sterling B. Hendricks Memorial Lecturer by NSDA-ARC. In 2007, he received distinguished alumni awards from the University of Kentucky and Virginia Tech and was named an Honorary Member of the Polish Society of Soil Science.

Recent Publications

Chen, C., J. Dynes, J. Wang,C. Karunakaran, and D.L. Sparks. 2014. Soft x-ray spectromicroscopy study of mineral-organic matter associations in pasture soil clay fractions. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48 (12):6678–6686.
DOI: 10.1021/es405485a

Elbana,T.A., D. L. Sparks and H.M. Selim. 2014. Transport of tin and lead in soils: Miscible displacement experiments and second-order modeling. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J 78:701–712.

Fan,J-X., Y-J. Wang, C. Liua, L-H. Wang, K. Yang, D-M. Zhou, W. Li, D. L. Sparks. 2014. Effect of iron oxide reductive dissolution on the transformation and immobilization of arsenic in soils: New insights from X-ray photoelectron and X-ray absorption spectroscopy. J. Haz. Mat. 279: 212–219.

Siebecker, M., W. Li, S. Khalid, and D.L. Sparks. 2014. Real time Q-EXAFS spectroscopy measures rapid precipitate formation at the mineral-water interface. Nature Communications (5) 5003:1-7.
DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6003

Sparks, D.L. 2014. Advances in coupling of kinetics and molecular scale tools to shed light on soil biogeochemical processes. Plant and Soil (In Press).
DOI 10.1007/s11104-014-2251-1

Yan, Y.P., F. Liu Jr., W. Li, F. Liu, X. H. Feng and D. L. Sparks. 2014. Sorption and desorption characteristics of organic phosphates of different structures on aluminium (oxyhydr)oxides. European J. Soil Sci. 65: 308–317.
DOI: 10.1111/ejss.12119

Yan, Y., W. Li, J. Yang, A. Zheng, F. Liu, X. Feng, D.L. Sparks. 2014. Mechanism of myo-inositol hexakisphosphate sorption on amorphous aluminum hydroxide: Spectroscopic evidence for rapid surface precipitation.Environ. Sci. Technol. 48 (12): 6735–6742.
DOI: 10.1021/es500996p

Yeasmin, S., B. Singh, R. S. Kookana, M. Farrell, D. L. Sparks , Cl.T. Jhonston. 2014. Influence of mineral characteristics on the retention of low molecular weight organic compounds: A batch sorption-desorption and ATR-FTIR study. J. Colloid Inter. Sci. 432: 246–257.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jcis.2014.06.036

Zhu, M., P. Northrup, C. Shi, S. J. L. Billinge, D. L. Sparks and Glenn A. Waychunas. 2014. Structure of sulfate adsorption complexes on ferrihydrite. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 1 (1):97–101.
DOI: 10.1021/es401301z


Contact Information
Dr. Donald Sparks

S Hallock duPont Professor, Plant & Soil Science
Professor, Chemistry & Biochemistry
Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineer

Plant and Soil Sciences
250A Harker ISE Lab

Newark, DE 19716
Phone: (302) 831-3436

Email: dlsparks@udel.edu