Grant allows UAF to purchase isotope research instrument

A newly awarded federal grant will allow the University of Alaska Fairbanks to purchase a new  piece of science equipment for analyzing isotope ratios of heavy elements such as strontium and mercury. The instrument will be the first of its kind in the state, allowing Alaska students and researchers to do isotope analysis without traveling to the Lower 48.

The National Science Foundation’s Major Research Infrastructure program has awarded UAF about $580,000 to purchase the instrument, which is known as a multi-collector inductively coupled mass spectrometer. UAF is contributing matching funds of about $250,000. The instrument will allow scientists to chemically analyze the isotope ratios of heavier elements in research samples. For example, the instrument will allow measurement of isotopes in strontium, an element that commonly accumulates in bones and teeth, but will also be able to analyze metals such as lead and mercury.

UAF’s Alaska Stable Isotope Facility currently has equipment for measuring light elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, but not heavier ones.

Matthew Wooller, director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility, said the potential for research is vast, encompassing a diverse range of disciplines such as anthropology, geology and wildlife biology. Studying isotopic signatures in bison teeth and fish ear bones can help establish their migratory patterns, for example, and samples from Alaska subsistence foods could help find the likely sources of heavy-metal contamination.

“I’m beyond thrilled,” Wooller said. “This is going to open a lot of possibilities for us.”

The equipment will also be available on a “fee for service” basis and will be available for use by researchers and state agencies not affiliated with the University of Alaska.

The minivan-sized instrument will be part of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility and will be housed in UAF’s new engineering building. Last week the University of Alaska Board of Regents approved a funding package to complete construction of the building. The new facility will also support a new full-time research faculty member who will be trained to use it.

During the next year, ThermoFisher Scientific will manufacture the instrument while UAF completes construction on the dedicated lab space and hires a researcher to operate it. UAF plans to make the instrument operational in fall 2017.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Matthew Wooller, 907-474-6738, mjwooller@alaska.edu.

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