A mass spectrometer that will help researchers interpret and understand the history of the Earth system will join other instruments in the Penn State’s multi-user Materials Characterization Laboratory, thanks to a $724,000 grant through the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation Program.
Matthew Fantle, assistant professor of geoscience, is the principal investigator on this grant, which is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Geoscientists and biochemists will use the Multiple Collector Inductively-Coupled Mass Spectrometer (MC-ICP-MS) to measure isotope ratios of elements such as calcium, copper, iron, lithium and molybdenum in natural materials. The isotopic composition of various elements aid researchers in tracing important processes in the Earth system, helping them to understand connections in the weathering-climate system and developing methods to interpret the history of the Earth as recorded in the rock record.
The MC-ICP-MS will be in a state-of-the-art clean room in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and will be run daily by a specialist who will train new users and help incorporate the new equipment into courses focused on data collection and analysis. The instrument represents the most advanced technology in the field of isotope chemistry and can ionize liquid samples extremely efficiently, stripping electrons from individual atoms to produce the positively charged ions measured. Those ions are filtered into a uniform energy beam, which passes through a magnetic field that separates the ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio. The separated atoms are then sent to a series of sensitive collectors that respond to discrete masses and convert each impact produced by the ion beam into voltages. The voltages measured at each collector are compared to each other to create isotope ratios.
The new spectrometer will benefit Penn State in a variety of ways. Those who are already involved in isotope research will increase the speed at which they do research by eliminating the need to travel to or send samples to external laboratories. This instrument will also support development of new isotopic systems, expand the use of isotope techniques to new fields across the University, promote mult-disciplinary collaboration and beyond and train graduate and undergraduate students in cutting-edge analytical techniques.