College Receives NSF Grant for Advanced Laboratory Instruments

  • Research Specialist Mike Rahnis '92 sets up the new real-time kinematic GPS unit, one of several instruments purchased by the College with funds from the National Science Foundation.  
  • Located on the lower level of the William H. Hackman Physical Sciences building, this X-ray diffractometer will soon be replaced by a newer model. 

It would be easy to mistake the laboratories in the William H. Hackman Physical Sciences building for the hub of a graduate research university.

Thanks to a $545,388 grant from the National Science Foundation, the Departments of Earth and Environment and Chemistry have embarked on a shopping trip that will equip the College with some of the most advanced instrumentation at any undergraduate institution in the country.

"This is a unique proposal because these instruments will be shared by students and faculty," says Dorothy Merritts, professor of geosciences and chair of environmental studies, who led a team effort in applying for the grant. "The geosciences and chemistry overlap in several areas, and for those shared needs we came up with a dream list."

The College's pitch to NSF landed six new instruments and an upgrade to the X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF), marking a "very significant re-equipping of the department," according to Roger Thomas, John Williamson Nevin Professor of Geosciences and chair of Earth and Environment. The grant will enrich the resources available to students in the Earth and Environment and Chemistry departments.

The new instruments include:

  • a new X-ray diffractometer (XRD);
  • an automatic sample changer for the X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF);
  • two gamma spectrometers;
  • a magnetometer;
  • a real-time kinematic GPS unit;
  • and a laser particle size analyzer.

The instruments will help the College to develop a state-of-the-art facility for work in Critical Zone (CZ) science, identified by the National Research Council as one of the most important new areas of research in the earth sciences. The CZ includes the solid Earth's outermost layer, from the vegetation canopy to the soil and groundwater that sustain human life.

"We've realized that we know less about the Critical Zone than about the surface of the moon," says Robert Walter, associate professor of geosciences, who notes that most living organisms exist within the CZ.

Stan Mertzman, Dr. Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences, works closely with the XRD and XRF—essential tools in mineralogy and geochemistry. The new XRD will replace a machine that is nearly 30 years old.

"Our students study their own unknown materials from active quarries," Mertzman says. "Using the XRD gives them confidence to get meaningful results and sets the stage for independent research. Once the students know how to use this analytical tool, they're in the driver's seat." Mertzman also uses the X-ray equipment to analyze materials for organizations across the country, including NASA, the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Studies, Armstrong World Industries and several research universities.

Claude Yoder '62, Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry, uses the XRD on a regular basis with his students. Kate Plass, assistant professor of chemistry, also will use the new machine in her research.

"X-ray diffraction is the main means of identifying compounds that are otherwise difficult to identify," Yoder says. "For example, it helps us look at the way carbonate is incorporated into an important family of minerals and how that incorporation affects the properties of the minerals."

Merritts and Walter will use the particle size analyzer to measure fine sediment suspended in stream water as part of a research project on which they have been engaged since 2003. They recently determined that tens of thousands of mill dams once existed in Pennsylvania, Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states, forming slackwater ponds that trapped sediment over a period of centuries.

"We found pockets of millpond sediment all over the landscape, and we needed some way to measure it accurately," Merritts says. "The particle size analyzer is a complex instrument that allows us to do things we've never done before." The new instrument will accomplish in four hours what previously took six weeks, the professor says.

The two gamma spectrometers will facilitate analysis of soil and sediment movement through the study of lead, cesium and beryllium isotopes. The instruments can determine levels of cesium that settled across the landscape during nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s, providing a universal tool to measure rates of soil erosion. "I know of no other gamma spectrometer for soil analysis that is being used in an undergraduate setting," Walter says.

Laboratory Technician Karen Mertzman '96 and Research Specialists Steve Sylvester '71 and Mike Rahnis '92 are all involved with—and instrumental in—running the new equipment and training students. Meanwhile, the chemistry department will take the lead in developing a second collaborative proposal seeking additional support from NSF for the purchase of two more instruments in 2010.

"The more we know, the less we know," Stan Mertzman says, noting how much scientists have yet to understand. "Greater detail and sophistication of our analyses is part of the evolution of science."

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