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New technology is earthshaking

June 29, 2000

Ryan Loskarn

You may not yet hear the ground rumbling, but a high-tech acquisition has put Tulane at the epicenter of current earth and environmental science technology. With the purchase of new, highly sensitive instrumentation, researchers will now be able to rapidly determine the existence of extremely low levels of a wide range of elements in laboratory samples.

The addition of an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer to the Coordinated Instrumentation Facility gives Tulane the distinction of possessing one of the few such instruments in the world.

"This is actually the second generation of a similar machine, of which there are maybe 100 in the world," says Franco Marcantonio, assistant professor of geology. "The machine that we now have is one of only approximately 10 in the world."

Ease of use and an extremely wide range of detection separate this instrument from previous technologies, says Marcantonio.

"Essentially all you have to do with this machine is take a sample-be it water, be it sediment, be it paint chips-and dissolve it. You just put it in the machine and that is it. You soon have a printout of the isotope ratio of any element that you want to know about."

Isotopes are similar species of the same element that have different atomic masses and different physical properties. According to Marcantonio, isotope ratios are useful in tracing the movement of masses of water, sediment and air.

In September 1998, the National Science Foundation awarded $183,372 to a team of researchers associated with the Tulane-Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research Center and led by Marcantonio. Tulane purchased the instrument last August after raising an additional $116,000 from the geology department and various other university sources.

According to Marcantonio, Tulane's geology and ecology and evolutionary biology departments, the medical school's ophthalmology department, and Xavier's pharmacology department all participated in the effort to gain funding for the acquisition of the $300,000 instrument. The instrument's extensive capabilities have applications in a variety of fields.

"It is great for environmental samples, it is great for geological samples, it is of great use in toxicology as well," says Marcantonio. "It can be used in the semi-conductor industry, for example, if people want to measure trace impurities in a silicon chip," he adds.

The mass spectrometer already has contributed to Marcantonio's own climate studies in which he is testing sediment samples from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans to chart past sedimentation rates. The research will provide information about climate variations that can be used to predict future global weather patterns.

"In terms of climate-change studies it gives modelers much-needed data and that is very important to the world," says Marcantonio.

Marcantonio also has incorporated plans for using the instrument in his study of contaminant transport in the environment. He says that observing pollution and the behavior of certain heavy metals in the environment will allow scientists to track environmental contamination. Other uses for the instrument abound.

Current research on the presence of trace elements in Mississippi River water and sediment are being led by Marcantonio's colleague, Brent McKee, professor of geology, who will use the instrument to aid Tulane's study of contaminated bayous in southeastern Louisiana. Housed at the Coordinated Instrumentation Facility in Boggs Center, the mass spectrometer is available to any Tulane and Xavier researcher, says Marcantonio.

The instrument's accessibility may benefit both independent studies and serve to integrate larger, multidisciplinary projects. "This machine will draw the departments together," he says. "It can be the focal point for different disciplines because it really is state-of-the-art technology for environmental sciences."

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