New investment to revolutionise microplastic and climate research

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The environmental science community is set to tackle pressing global issues using new research infrastructures funded through the NERC 2020 Capital Call.

The £10.8 million fund will support 11 new capital assets that will support research into fields such as air and water quality and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

These cutting-edge assets will enable scientists to interrogate the working of the environment and aid the delivery of environmental solutions, in critical areas such as environmental pollution and climate change.

Increasing research capabilities

Assets funded include:

  • an unmanned surface vehicle that will work alongside the RRS Sir David Attenborough to explore glacier fronts and calving ice shelves where the ship cannot operate
  • an innovative new laser system, acquired by the University of Portsmouth, capable of analysing pollutants at very high resolution, to aid our understanding of microplastic toxicity
  • a first-of-its-kind atmospheric research observatory in Scotland that will measure local and national GHG levels to support the UK and Scotland’s ‘net zero’ targets.

Delivering sustainable infrastructure

The recently published Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Responsible Business Statement and UKRI Environmental Sustainability Strategy demonstrate the strategic importance of delivering environmental science in ways that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

The NERC Strategic Capital Call 2020 has led the way in delivering the sustainability strategy by being the first NERC funding opportunity to integrate sustainability as an independent assessment criterion.

Successful applicants demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainable research, including, for example, considering long-term costs through funding models and lowering carbon emissions in the infrastructure design.

Providing solutions to environmental challenges

Dr Iain Williams, Director of Strategic Partnerships at NERC said:

Keeping pace with the latest opportunities afforded by developments in research infrastructure is essential to generate cutting-edge research, improve our knowledge of the global environment and provide solutions to environmental challenges.

This funding will help UK researchers study and tackle major issues such as the impacts of climate change and pollution of our air and water.

These investments, across the UK, will help safeguard the community’s ability to carry out exceptional science, maintaining the UK’s position as a leader in environmental research and innovation.

Further information

Successful applications to the NERC Strategic Capital Call 2020

Please note that awards are listed in alphabetical order by principal investigator surname.

Applied-RadioIsotope & Environmental Laboratory (ARIEL)

Dr Maya Al-Sid-Cheikh – University of Surrey

ARIEL is a complete chemical imaging suite that will enable researchers to address multiple scientific issues.

These include where microplastic pollution originates and how it travels in the environment.

The asset will produce unique and needed chemical imaging data that will contribute significantly to the understanding and management of environmental contaminants.

First purpose-built UK tall tower for GHG research

Dr Tim Arnold – University of Edinburgh and National Physical Laboratory

This purpose-built tall tower can measure levels of GHGs with high precision and distinguish between local and national emissions.

This will enable us to measure how close the UK is to meeting its GHG emission reduction goals as we move towards the net zero target among other pressing questions.

In doing so, it will advance the move to a low carbon economy as efficiently as possible – to minimise global climate change and mitigate the effect of changes to the natural environment.

A step change in compelling evidence on water quality impacts of agricultural practice

Professor Adrian Collins – Rothamsted Research

The installation of a set of water quality analysers at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC’s) North Wyke Farm will enable researchers to measure nutrient discharge to water courses and study environmental change.

The equipment aims to determine the total soluble reactive losses of agricultural nutrient inputs to surface waters.

The asset will investigate reducing agricultural nutrient pollution into surface water by a further 20%, which could result in new policies and potentially save £8.3M annually in waterbody damage costs.

FAME: Future of Advanced Metrology for Environmental fluid dynamics

Dr Robert Dorrell – University of Hull

This asset will enable researchers to take crucial metrological studies of environmental flows and fluid dynamics from lab settings to the real world.

Users will be able to study flows across a range of environments for research relating to a range of applications from mantle convection driving geohazards; to nutrient and pollutant dispersal in terrestrial systems; to atmospheric flows causing extreme weather.

Augmenting capabilities of the RRS Sir David Attenborough through an unmanned surface vehicle

Dr Pierre Dutrieux – British Antarctic Survey

This high specification unmanned surface vehicle will enhance observation on RRS Sir David Attenborough (SDA) expeditions.

It will increase the scope of the ship to work in shallow and coastal areas, including glacier fronts and calving ice shelves where SDA cannot operate efficiently or safely.

The data from this asset will significantly reduce uncertainty in predictions of global sea level rise for the coming decades, mitigating social, environmental and economic repercussions.

GHG instrumentation system for aquatic ecosystems (GHG-Aqua)

Professor Christopher Evans – UK Centre For Ecology & Hydrology

GHG-Aqua is a UK-wide network of novel low-cost, low-maintenance sensor systems combined with a mobile autonomous sensor suite.

It will be a unique community resource to accurately measure and analyse GHG emissions from bodies of water, allowing for the quantification of inland waters to UK GHG emissions.

This will provide evidence to governments, regulatory agencies and the private sector to protect and restore waterbodies impacted by human activities.

Dating and Isotopic Characterisation for Decarbonisation, Energy, Environment (DICharDEE) Collision & Reaction Cell multi-collector Mass Spec with MS/MS capability

Dr Matthew Horstwood – British Geological Survey

This asset will be unique to the UK, allowing for isotope ratios to be determined at increased capacity and precision, enabling the chemical characterisation and dating of geological samples.

This will help answer key questions such as how natural geological processes enrich raw materials and energy into prospective resources needed for a net zero world.
It will deliver research that informs site characterisation and identifies the suitability of the subsurface for decarbonisation technologies such as Carbon Capture Storage (CCS).

Building the UK BioGeoChemical (BGC) Argo array: the UK contribution to a global integrated biogeochemical autonomous ocean sensing network

Dr Brian King – National Oceanography Centre

This innovative system of Argo floats will measure pH, dissolved Oxygen, suspended sediment and light, driving a transformative shift in understanding of biogeochemical cycling in the ocean.

This will help to answer questions on the role the ocean plays in carbon uptake and the processes responsible for de-oxygenation of the global ocean.
This will help us understand key processes which have a profound impact on our changing climate.

Air quality supersite triplets (UK-AQST)

Professor Zongbo Shi – University of Birmingham

This asset has the capability to study urban and rural air quality in novel ways.
Its unparalleled air chemistry observation capability will answer key questions such as how secondary pollutants like aerosol nitrate are formed when air travels from the countryside to the cities and vice versa.

Cleaner air benefits human health, agriculture, and the natural environment but ensuring cleaner air quality requires clear knowledge of the factors determining pollutant concentrations.AQST will provide such information, through the nationally and internationally unique supersite “triplet” configuration.

Purchase of a tandem LA-LIBS femtosecond laser system for the UK

Professor Craig Storey – University of Portsmouth

The LA-LIBS system allows elemental analysis of samples using a short duration pulse laser (one quadrillionth of a second). The system doesn’t heat the sample and so is less likely damage it.

This asset will allow scientists to answer major questions such as what types of particulate pollution (including microplastics) can be found in UK marine and freshwater environments.

This will support a much better understanding of microplastics in terms of pollution and toxicity.

LASER-ENVI – A LASER spectrometer-based Environmental Gas and Gas-Isotope Facility

Dr Alexandra Turchyn – University of Cambridge

LASER-ENVI comprises lab-based and field deployable equipment that will enable measurements of Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Hydrogen Sulphide, Sulphur Dioxide, and water vapour from environmental samples.

This will allow a large range of science questions to be addressed, including how the methane cycle works under ice, with a goal to investigate natural and human-induced climate change.

Additionally, monitoring the flux and composition of water vapour and Carbon Dioxide gases from volcanoes will provide critical information for eruption forecasting and monitoring, with potential to save lives and livelihoods.

About the NERC 2020 Capital Call

This funding opportunity was partly supported by the recent £213m investment from the government’s World Class Labs funding scheme, received via UKRI.

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