UK scientists given key to unlock Earth's history

UK scientists have been given the keys to a tool that will allow them to make a huge leap in understanding how the Earth works and how it’s changing.

A team of Earth scientists at the University of Portsmouth has been awarded £950,000 to buy and install the most highly specialised tool available to find and analyse to microscale detail an enormous range of pollutants.

The integrated femtosecond laser ablation and laser induced breakdown spectroscopy system will be open to UK scientists studying to better understand environmental pollution.

Funding was awarded by the UK’s leading funder of environmental science, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Professor Craig Storey, in the University’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, led the bid.

He said: “This instrument will provide a step change in environmental research capability. It’s the only one of its kind across the UK and Europe and opens the possibility of stealing a march in the study of how the planet works.

This new instrument opens a window, giving us the ability with pinpoint accuracy to analyse a vast range of materials and elements to provide high quality data critical for addressing geo-environmental problems.

Professor Craig Storey,

“The combination of technologies in one instrument capable of rapid analysis will be unique to the UK and Europe, and will provide the data required to tackle many major environmental challenges.”

Earth and environmental scientists tackle diverse issues, ranging from the formation of Earth to the fate of ecosystems being stressed by pollution. In order to study these problems, they need to be able to measure the chemical composition of, for example, minerals, plastics, dust and biological materials.

Professor Storey said: “We rely on data that allows us to link physical and biological process, such as mineral growth, breakdown of plastic in the environment, corrosion and the dispersal of dust, with chemical ones, such as uptake of metals in minerals, release of toxic elements from plastics and the transfer of polluting chemicals to plants and animals.

“Only when we have this understanding can we fully determine sustainable solutions to complex environmental problems.”

Among the pressing environmental problems the new technology will allow scientists to study are how to locate and sustainably mine metals critical for building low-carbon infrastructure; how dangerous microplastics are in rivers and oceans; and how to reduce harmful air pollution.

Professor Storey said: “Analysis of such a broad range of materials usually requires a multitude of different instruments and methods. In addition, it is difficult to analyse accurately very small fragments of some materials such as plastic and dust.

Professor Craig Storey

A step-change: Professor Craig Storey

“This new instrument opens a window, giving us the ability with pinpoint accuracy to analyse a vast range of materials and elements to provide high quality data critical for addressing geo-environmental problems.”

The new instrument will be used to:

  • Identify the sources and fates of marine, freshwater and atmospheric particulate pollution (microplastic, dust and other) and how they influence metal cycling and vectoring through processes such as surface adsorption, leaching and biofilm formation;
  • Monitor the growth of marine organisms and their response to environmental stresses, including oyster bed restoration in UK waters;
  • Perform novel micro- to nano-scale chemical and isotopic measurements of accessory minerals such as zircon and apatite to transform our understanding of early Earth processes and the development of plate tectonics;
  • Give unprecedented insight into the formation of carbonates in hydrothermal and brittle-fault settings to better understand links between fault movement, (neo)tectonics and ore mineralisation;
  • Provide new constraints on magmatic-hydrothermal and weathering processes leading to critical metal and other ore-formation; via concurrent analysis of non-metals (e.g. H, S, C, O and halogens) in fluid inclusions and economic minerals by LIBS and metals and isotopes by (MC)-ICP-MS;
  • Enable in-situ geochemical characterisation and nanoscale depth profiling for a wide-range of materials (e.g. polymers, biofilms, tissue, biominerals), by overcoming the currently limiting requirement for matrix-matched reference materials.

The proposed facility will be housed at the University of Portsmouth and open for use by the UK scientific community.

The bid was supported by a wide range of UK universities, all keen to share the tool, including the universities of Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Southampton, the National Environmental Isotope Facility / British Geological Survey and the Open University.

 

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