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Sample Preparation Equipment for Trace Element Analysis of Natural Materials

School of Oceanography








The Trace Element Analysis Lab (TraceLab) in the College of the Environment is requesting automated sample preparation equipment to make chemical analysis of trace elements an accessible tool for student research. Trace element analysis has the power to uncover the geological and biological processes that shape our planet, reconstruct past climate, track animal migration, and trace contaminants in the environment. For example, analyzing a small piece of a fish ear bone can answer important resource management questions like the fish’s age, in which river it was born, and the timing of migrations into the ocean. Similarly, the composition of a piece of fossil coral can indicate the temperature of the ocean tens of thousands of years ago, data that can be used to test models of climate dynamics. Metals locked within pottery from an archeological site can even be used to reconstruct ancient trade networks. The TraceLab is a new interdisciplinary plasma-source mass spectrometry facility ( that was created to give the UW research community cutting edge trace element research capabilities. This facility was built through the generous support of an external foundation, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, together with matching contributions from 13 researchers across 7 different units within the UW research community. While high accuracy trace element analysis is a powerful approach used by a wide range of disciplines, it can be challenging to make these measurements. Because trace elements are easily contaminated, sample handling requires meticulous care and typically occurs within specially built clean rooms. Elaborate standardization schemes are often necessary to account for the varied behavior of natural materials during analysis. This standardization requires time intensive sample preparation steps. High-resolution atomic mass spectrometry may also be necessary to resolve trace signals from a complex matrix of other elements. At the TraceLab we carefully identified the main bottlenecks that limit student accessibility and productivity when conducting these complex measurements. The major factors that limit student use of these new mass spectrometers are the time required for sample preparation; limited throughput; and uncertain access to the clean room. To target and overcome these bottlenecks, we propose an integrated set of new research equipment that will automate sample preparation, free students from working in the clean lab, and increase throughput.

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