A little bit of everything…
A little bit of everything
The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) is one of the most sophisticated facilities of its kind in the world, providing insights into the mysterious world of molecules and isotopes. And the aim of the centre is not only to advance our understanding of the planet, but also the species who live on its surface – along the way identifying dead English monarchs, analysing Martian meteorites, dating dinosaur extinction and super-eruptions, and explaining the connection between sex, ‘heavy metal’ and granite...
Many scientists believe that instead of teaching traditional subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, schools should simply focus on earth sciences. And nowhere is this interplay between the different disciplines more evident than in the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) in East Kilbride, southeast of Glasgow where, according to the centre’s Director Rob Ellam, they “do a little bit of everything.”
SUERC sits in a building originally constructed as the home of the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre (SURRC), set up in 1963. And the evolution of the facilities housed in the centre reflects the huge advances made in technology over the years, and the shifting emphasis in science itself, including the increased attention paid to earth and environmental sciences over the last 50 years, and the increasing collaboration between physicists, geologists, chemists and biomedical researchers.
In 1963, SURRC was staffed primarily by physicists and nuclear scientists, using the low-power reactor for teaching and research, including academic and commercial applications. In the late 1960s, the first mass spectrometer (used to analyse the abundance of atoms with a slightly different weight) was installed in the centre, followed by a series of spectrometers (used to measure the relative abundance of isotopes in molecules and elements from hydrogen to uranium).
When the reactor was decommissioned in 1995 (Imperial College still operates a similar facility in Ascot), the centre was reorganised to focus its activities on earth, environmental and biomedical sciences, with an emphasis on geochemistry, radiochemistry and isotope biogeosciences. It was then renamed SUERC, with a mission to provide “collaborative access to expensive equipment and specialist expertise” for scientists at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow – in other words, it offers shared resources which individual departments would not be able to fund on their own. Today, says Ellam, the teaching and research staff are a mix of different disciplines, including two specialists in biomedical research, four geologists, two physicists and three chemists. The total staff numbers 80 people, including technicians and post-graduate students.
The centre also provides a range of highly specialised facilities for the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), including:
> Argon Isotope Facility
> Isotope Community Support Facility
> Life Science Mass Spectrometry Facility
> Cosmogenic Isotope Analysis Facility
> Radiocarbon Facility (Environment)
These facilities are used to support NERC-funded research into major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health and the genetic make-up of life on Earth. All university researchers who qualify for NERC support can use the facilities, which are also available for commercial research, enabling the centre to function with funding from multiple sources.
SUERC groups its research into four over-arching themes, but there is substantial overlap between the different themes:
> the Isotope Geosciences Unit (IGU)
> radiometrics, environmental chemistry & radiocarbon
> the Isotope Biology Laboratory (IBL)
> accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS)
These “high-end, analytical” facilities may be replaced by totally different equipment within a few years, says Ellam, who sees the job of the centre to be one step ahead of technology trends. As the technology evolves and the economies of scale allow researchers to install their own facilities, SUERC then looks for the next wave of high-tech equipment – a cycle which typically lasts for about 10–15 years.
“The challenge is to find new opportunities,” says Ellam, “and identify new challenges. Most high-end equipment starts off as a customised solution for highly specialised projects but then, over time, becomes used for much more routine work.”
At every stage of its development, SUERC had to be “brave enough” to get into new fields of research using novel analytical techniques, taking calculated risks which later paid off. And its latest venture into a very new field of research is to purchase a new piece of kit for something called “clumped isotope geochemistry” – a new way to reconstruct temperature in the rock record by examining how rare isotopes bond with each other. For example, the study of heavy oxygen and carbon isotopes provides a proxy for analysis of climate change, dating back millions of years, because the rare isotopes literally “clump” into molecules such as CO2, based on the temperature when they were formed. The new technique will refine conventional isotope records used to construct former sea temperature, but which are also affected by changes in other parameters – e.g. seawater salinity. By extracting the temperature record from clumped isotopes, it will be possible to back-out other parameters with more confidence. As well as improving our knowledge of climate change, the new device will also be used for other applications, such as analysing Martian meteorites (see following article: SUERC - From outer space to outer Hebrides).
Another major application will be helping oil and gas exploration, using clumped isotope biochemistry to measure the quality or grade of hydrocarbon deposits, by determining how long the carbon has been there and at what temperature it formed, thus aiding the decision whether or not it will be profitable to exploit a new field. Similar techniques will be used to analyse methane, and Ellam says it will even enable researchers to establish whether a dinosaur was warm-blooded or cold-blooded, based on an analysis of fossilised remains – thus pinpointing when dinosaurs and birds went their separate ways as they evolved.
The new clumped isotope palaeothermometer which SUERC plans to install is being funded by the University of Glasgow, which is providing £1.2 million for the initial commission. The new device will be used by a range of researchers from different universities, funded by research grants, but it will also be available to oil and gas companies, thus bringing in new revenues to SUERC. Caltech pioneered a similar piece of equipment to carry out its own research, but SUERC will be open for business to all, including the new wave of companies looking for shale gas.
Every new piece of equipment improves the “intelligence” which scientists gather from analysis of various samples, but even though Ellam and his colleagues are excited whenever they acquire some new technology, they know that it will soon become ubiquitous and that SUERC will then need to move on to the next generation of tools.
SUERC is not all about getting the latest equipment, however. It also provides highly specialised expertise in different fields, including radiocarbon dating, for example. According to Ellam, demand for carbon dating has increased significantly in recent years, especially commercial work for what is called the “heritage industry.” It is all about “doing archaeology properly,” says Ellam, and relatively new tools such as the accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) play a key role in the process, greatly speeding up results and making them much more precise. As well as being called upon to analyse the bones of English king Richard III (see following article: SUERC - From outer space to outer Hebrides), the unit is also sometimes asked to do forensic work for criminal cases, including illegal ivory trading – you can only buy and sell ivory older than June, 1947.
Ellam also explains how the analytical techniques used by SUERC today are a huge advance on the methods used only a few years ago. Even with AMS, radiocarbon is limited to dating samples younger than about 50,000 years. The argon–argon method (which uses the much slower decay of potassium 40 relative to argon 40 to establish geological ages of millions to billions of years) has recently been pushed into the radiocarbon realm, giving a seamless chronology from the present day to the origin of the solar system.
Argon–argon analysis enables researchers to date samples with greater precision than ever before, going back hundreds of millions or even billions of years, and this has led to some exciting results – for example, studying volcanic rocks in Yellowstone (see following article: SUERC - From outer space to outer Hebrides) and Tristan de Cunha.
When it comes to the chronology of climate change, SUERC uses similar techniques to look at samples from the ocean bed, including corals and fossils extracted from lake cores, with uranium–thorium dating providing the atomic clock and a variety of other elements and isotopes offering temperature records dating back thousands of years. Scientists use these “tools” to look at intervals or “slices of time” as brief as 2–3 months, identifying modern climate phenomena such as El Niño in ancient climate records.
“There has been a step-change in activities relating to climate change studies,” says Ellam. “And SUERC has been very influential in this field.” Like many other scientists, Ellam also gets “annoyed” when people talk about climate change as if it is a new or strange phenomenon. Climate change has been a regular occurrence since the birth of the planet, and anthropogenic climate change – the acceleration caused by human intervention since the start of the industrial age – is a relatively recent blip in the records. What makes it so significant for humankind now, says Ellam, is that our ancestors never had to experience the extremes of climate that occurred in the pre-human geological past.
SUERC researchers are doing cutting-edge work in a wide range of areas, including biomedical science, where there is an emphasis on nutritional studies – looking at the effects of the diet on the development of killer diseases such as stomach cancer and Type 2 diabetes, as well as obesity. In the past, researchers would “label” food with harmless isotopes and observe their progress through the body, but today they have gone a step further by cultivating wheat enriched with carbon-13 isotopes, then feeding it to people and seeing what happens during normal digestion. The results of this research could lead not only to much deeper knowledge of diet and even new foodstuffs but also help pharmaceutical companies develop drugs which modify people's metabolism.
Ellam's personal research interests focus on “the deep earth,” investigating how the mantle interacts with the crust – and convection in the planet's mantle where hot solid rocks flow and convect at a few millimetres per year. He is also interested in “igneous petrogenesis” – how rocks are formed when magma cools. And this led to his involvement in a project which is trying to explain the unusual chemistry of rocks found on Baffin Island in northern Canada a few years ago. These basalt rocks are “baffling everyone,” says Ellam, because the ratio of these helium-3 (He-3) isotopes to helium-4 (He-4) is much higher than normal for rocks which are found on the surface, which may indicate that it is very primitive material nearly as old as the planet itself.
When the Earth’s mantle melts, molten lava erupts from volcanoes, carrying “a flavour” of the deep mantle to the surface for geologists to analyse. The helium is a mixture of He-3 which has existed since the Earth formed and He-4 produced by the decay of other radioactive elements. The ratio of He-3 to He-4 can only reduce with time and the fact that the ratio in the Baffin Island rocks (which formed after a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago) is very much higher than normal suggests an exotic, but somewhat mysterious source deep in the Earth. SUERC has been using other isotopic tracers to try to figure out exactly “where the helium signature comes from.”
Another of Ellam’s areas of interest is the so-called “Messinian Salinity Crisis” when, about five million years ago, the Mediterranean Sea dried up and deposited vast amounts of salt evaporites – the mineral sediments left behind on the floor of the sea when the water evaporates. According to Ellam, the salinity required to deposit the mineral halite is seven times greater than generally found on the sea bed but the real puzzle is that the evaporites represent about ten times the salt that would be derived by evaporating a single Mediterranean volume of seawater. Using geochemical tracers of ocean currents (found in things such as fossil fish teeth), researchers at SUERC, as part of the MEDGATE EU Network working in southern Spain and northern Morocco, are trying to to “redraw the map,” of the region, showing where the water used to circulate millions of years ago.
First as a researcher and now as director, Ellam has seen some significant changes at SUERC over the years. “When I first came here in 1992,” says Ellam, “the geologists were pioneers applying nuclear techniques to geological problems, but somewhat peripheral to the main purpose of the Reactor Centre. For almost two decades now, Earth, Environmental and Life Sciences applications have been at the centre of our operations.”
In the future, SUERC will never stand still. New technologies will come and go and scientists will ask more searching questions, but Ellam sees its role not only as a pioneer in high-tech research tools, but also as a centre which will leave behind a legacy for future generations of researchers in terms of its collaborative ethos. Today, the emphasis may be on earth, environmental and biomedical sciences, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?