Cornell University seeks to establish a multi-user elemental analytical facility with an inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer (ICP-OES) for the analysis of a wide variety of samples for environmental, geological, energy, and ecological research. ICP-OES is capable of rapid and sensitive multi-element analysis in a variety of sample matrices, and is a robust technology well-suited for serving a broad user base. Active research foci at Cornell that will greatly benefit from ICP-OES include geothermal energy, environmental aqueous and soil geochemistry, igneous and metamorphic petrology, biogeochemistry, environmental engineering, geological carbon sequestration, and tight gas exploitation by hydraulic fracturing, as well as material sciences.

A significant expansion of state of the art facilities for elemental analysis will enable a wide variety of research at Cornell and our regional higher education partners. The facility will support projects ranging from the development of exotic metal catalysts for fuel cells, to recovering the chemistry of the ancient oceans, to understanding the mechanisms of metal transport in subsurface brines, to magmatic processes associated with volcanism, and beyond. The new instrumentation will be used to directly address regional environmental issues, such as quantifying the impacts of acid rain on forest nutrient supply and the impacts of hydraulic fracturing in natural gas exploration on water quality. We plan to integrate hands on education in analytical techniques and data quality control/quality assurance for students from Cornell and regional colleges.

Project Report

We established a new facility for the elemental analysis of environmental and technology samples in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University. The centerpiece of the facility is a new SpectroBlue ICP-OES (Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometer. This instrument accepts a variety of sample types, heats them to around 6000 K in an argon plasma (about the same temperature as the surface of the sun), and then measures the emitted light at many wavelengths to quantify the abundances of up to 60 elements. We use this to analyze a wide variety of environmental, geological, and archeological samples. We also analyze synthetic materials generated by researchers in materials science, and experimental systems. Over the period of this award we developed a wide variety of protocols for different samples types and analytical needs, as sample preparation and data reduction methods vary with the type of materials and the desired information. One area in which we have made progress is in the measurement of different species (chemical forms) of metalloids including arsenic, selenium and antimony. All of these occur naturally, but can be pollutants as well and are harmful at high levels and/or with chromic exposure. The chemistry, bioavailability and toxicity of these elements depends strongly on their speciation, so it is important to be able to determine what chemical forms are present in environmental or biological samples. We are now able to routinely determine speciation at levels less than 1 part per billion. The new facility has been used by dozens of researchers from a number of different universities and colleges. We have held training sessions for young scientists on the principles of ICP operation and useful sample preparation methods. We have applied the instrumentation to a wide variety of research questions, from th composition of novel engineered nanomaterials, to the impact of the 2014 Dan River, NC coal ash spill, to the efficiency of copper ore extraction techniques, to the levels of arsenic in rice and many others.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Earth Sciences (EAR)
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David Lambert
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Cornell University
United States
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