The Department of Earth Science and Engineering’s new £2 million laboratory space is part of its push to become a world leader in isotope geochemistry. This is a field of research that investigates the chemical content of materials to further our understanding of humans, our environment, the Earth and the solar system.
The Mass Spectrometry and Isotope Geochemistry at Imperial College London (MAGIC) facilities boast a newly refurbished geochemistry laboratory, the latest equipment to analyse the chemical content of materials, and a large clean room facility.
The clean room is supplied with highly purified air, to ensure that samples are not contaminated by dust and other impurities during handling and preparation for analysis.
The samples are analysed in a new mass spectrometry laboratory, which houses a Multiple Collector Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (MC-ICPMS) and a new Thermal Ionisation Mass Spectrometer (TIMS), which enable extremely precise chemical analyses to be taken of materials such as water, meteorites, atmospheric dust, corals, rocks and sediments.
Dr Tina van de Flierdt, a lecturer in isotope geochemistry and the driving force behind the acquisition of the TIMS, says her research into past climate change will benefit from the use of the laboratory which will enable her to analyse a range of materials. She says:
“The world’s ocean’s are a major store of heat and carbon and are known to have contributed to past changes in our ancient climate. I am analysing sediments and corals to understand the past chemistry of the world’s oceans. This chemistry changed over time and tells us about ocean movements. Such ocean circulation patterns are linked to atmospheric carbon dioxide compositions. Understanding them in the past is important for predicting future effects of climate change.”
The refurbished isotope geochemistry laboratory
The laboratory will also be used to combat environmental pollution. Dr Dominik Weiss of the isotope geochemistry group is developing new methods to trace heavy metal pollutants back to their original sources using the MC-ICPMS. He has already had success tracing the pollutant zinc back to an emission source in a joint project with the University of Sao Paulo. He says:
“For the first time, we were able to pinpoint the exact source of zinc emissions, which is a major cause of respiratory disease, to cars and factories in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. The precision of the instruments in the mass spectrometry lab means that I can now broaden my research to trace other pollutants such as arsenic, which is a major polluter of water ways, and other trace metals such as cadmium, copper and thallium.”
Dr Mark Rehkamper, also of the isotope geochemistry group, was instrumental in securing funding for the MC-ICPMS. He says the newly refurbished lab means that he can further his research into understanding the causes of Parkinson’s disease. He says:
“I’ve been working with other Imperial researchers who are experts in neurological diseases to understand possible links between Parkinson’s Disease and other movement disorders to deficiencies in the way we metabolise copper, which is found in the body. Studying copper isotopes enables us to see how it is ingested from food sources and allows us to see how it is moving around in the body. With our more precise analytical methods we may be able to improve our understanding of the causes of this debilitating disease. ”
The Head of the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Professor Martin Blunt, welcomed the opening of the labs. He said:
“We want to be world leaders in what we do. We want to make sure that our research in isotope geochemistry is of the highest quality and to do that we need the best equipment. We’ve been extremely fortunate that the College has invested in this area of science, both in terms of the new instruments and labs and our internationally recognised staff. It puts the Department in a great position for the future."
The official opening brings together two eminent geochemists, Professor Alex Halliday, of Oxford University, and Professor Harry Elderfield, of Cambridge University, who are giving lectures on isotope geochemistry followed by the official opening. Sir Keith O’Nions, a leading geochemist and also the Director of the new Institute for Security Science and Technology at Imperial College London, will officially open the facilities.