NDSU geosciences researchers add two new state-of-the-art analytical instruments

Researchers in the NDSU geosciences department have recently added two new high-tech analytical instruments to their brand new laboratory spaces in Sugihara Hall: an inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer (ICP-OES) and an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF). These instruments will provide a reliable method of determining the composition of various elements found in water, rock, sediment, and soil samples. They will be important tools for researchers in North Dakota, where water and soil quality research has a significant economic impact on sectors like agriculture.

Funded by a $202k National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the instruments will support faculty and student research activities at NDSU as well as to faculty and students at the five Tribal Colleges in North Dakota through an outreach program. "This new equipment will allow our faculty to expand their research and allow our students to get hands on experience with cutting edge technology," said associate professor of geology and geography and chair of geosciences Stephanie Day.

The ICP-OES determines the composition of the elements using the combination of plasma and a spectrometer. Plasma, often referred to as the fourth state of matter (along with solids, liquids, and gases), is created when a gas is superheated to the point where its electrons are stripped away from the atoms, resulting in an ionized gas. Samples placed into this extremely hot environment are atomized, releasing a unique spectrum fingerprint which can then be measured by the spectrometer. By studying the results, researchers can determine the exact makeup of the sample.

A complementary tool to the ICP-OES, the XRF measures the unique x-ray fluorescence emitted by various elements contained within a sample. Like the ICP-OES, the XRF provides researchers with a list of the various specific elements within the sample through a non-destructive analytical process.

Ben Laabs, associate professor of geology at NDSU, and Bernhardt Saini-Eidukat and Scott Wood, both professors of geology at NDSU, were the three individuals who submitted the proposal.

Laabs' research focuses on examining the geologic records of past glaciation and the response of surface processes to climate change. His work provides understanding about the pace and magnitude of climate change by studying the past glaciations in the mountain west and Great Plains regions of the United States.

Laabs studies the trace amount of beryllium in rocks and sentiments. As beryllium is produced over time at a very slow rate in quartz, it becomes a marker that the ICP-OES can detect and which helps Laabs determine the age of certain samples. This information, along with data about where the quartz was located, provides Laabs with a picture of past glacial activity.

He notes how the ICP-OES is a unique tool that’s easy to use. “It can measure concentrations of trace elements in water or can be used to examine rock dissolved in solution,” he said. “It uses low amounts of argon and can be easily turned on and off, making it an instrument that gives us valuable information without a high cost to run.”

Laabs adds that the geoscience labs at NDSU’s new Sugihara Hall provide easier and quicker sample prep for activities such as dissolving rocks. “This is a great environment for us and our students to do research.”

Saini-Eidukat conducts research on minerals, ore deposits and soils including research into the levels of toxic heavy metals such as a cadmium and arsenic found in some areas of eastern North Dakota. In addition, he and Wood research the interaction between the acidic waters found in hot springs mines and the fresh water of lakes and rivers. “The ICP-OES will be very useful in detecting the amounts of various heavy metals in freshwaters and groundwaters,” he said.

Wood also studies the mobility of metallic elements in a wide array of contexts, including during the formation of metallic ore deposits, in soils and natural waters, and even in the human body. He particularly focuses on rare earth element and platinum-group elements, both groups containing a number of so-called “critical elements” that are important to modern technologies.

In addition to the impact the ICP-OES and XRF will have on NDSU researchers and students, these instruments, along with a newly acquired mobile water quality probe, are also targeted to be used in activities with the Tribal Colleges in North Dakota. Saini-Eidukat explains how they will be part of the Nurturing American Tribal Undergraduate Research and Education (NATURE) program held each summer at the Tribal Colleges and NDSU and UND.

NATURE aims to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education among Tribal Colleges in North Dakota and middle/high school students and to build a pathway for the pursuit of careers in STEM disciplines.

“For the first time, we’ll be able to invite NATURE students to take part in environmental geochemistry projects,” Saini-Eidukat said. “We’ve already received interest from individuals at the Tribal Colleges in North Dakota so we know they will be great learning instruments for helping students understand geosciences.”

Undergraduate students at NDSU will also be major users of the instruments. Saini-Eidukat notes how experiences with both tools will give students experience that will translate to their future research opportunities of in the workforce. “Geosciences is a department that puts a high value on giving our undergrads valuable research experiences, such as working in the mountains in the western U.S. or traveling as far away as Antarctica. Working with these two new instruments fits that strategy perfectly.”

Laabs adds that NDSU will continue to find value in the instruments. “They will enable new research in soil science, chemistry, and other types of natural resource studies at NDSU while significantly augment ongoing, collaborative research between NDSU faculty and colleagues at neighboring institutions in Minnesota and Montana.”

The two new instruments are schedule to arrive during NDSU’s 2022 spring semester.

For more details about NSF award Number: 2121832, see: nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward

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