UK bolsters environmental sciences research equipment

Part of tandem accelerator in mass spectrometry laboratory

Scientists researching ways to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges facing the UK will benefit from a major upgrade of research equipment.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has invested £6.6 million in improving the UK’s national research infrastructure by funding the purchase of 10 state-of-the-art pieces of equipment.

This new infrastructure will, for example:

  • enable scientists to better monitor volcanoes
  • respond to floods and droughts
  • advance their understanding of the effects of climate change on the atmosphere
  • trace minerals in the earth.

Research equipment

The equipment will be held at universities and research centres across the UK, and are a national resource available to all environmental scientists. The equipment comprises:

  • an instrument that will enable scientists to see in tiny detail the chemical reactions in water, atmosphere, soil, plants and effect of pollution and climate change
  • an imaging system to monitor plankton, vital for oxygen generation and feeding fish, which will be located in the Western Channel Observatory (WCO), south of Plymouth
  • a spectrometer that can sample molecules in particles and gases from the atmosphere in very high-resolution to measure atmospheric composition and changes
  • a rapid-deployment seismic instrument to track seismic activity in remote, inaccessible and challenging environments
  • equipment that uses the latest fibre optic cables to provide a brand-new method of monitoring changes underground and monitor volcanoes, earthquakes, and even traffic
  • a new system that will analyse sediment samples from the ocean, land and waterways, and will help scientists understand historic changes in climate
  • the first UK-based thermal ionisation mass spectrometer that will enable scientists to study in more detail what lies beneath us including earth’s magma and mantle
  • a next generation X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanner to help scientists study soil health and support research that is helping us adapt to drought
  • an asset that will enable the testing of geological materials at both high pressure and temperature to support understanding of a range of environmental processes, including:
    • where and how long magmas are stored
    • the formation of critical metal ores required for the energy transition
  • a UK-based X-ray diffraction facility helping scientists study minerals located in the Earth’s deep interior.

Supporting our environmental scientists

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

The UK environmental science sector is key to helping us understand the environment and natural hazards, adapt to climate change, and to achieve the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050.

NERC is strongly committed to supporting our environmental scientists in addressing these challenges.

This investment marks a major upgrade of national environmental science infrastructure, giving researchers access to the tools they need to drive forward their research.

Further information

NERC Capital Call equipment being funded

CoreMiS: multimodal correlative microscopy and spectroscopy for advanced environmental science research

Lead: Dr Gbotemi Adediran, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

The suite of equipment will enable scientists to see nanoparticles and nano-scale chemical reactions in water, atmosphere, soil, plants in greater detail.

This will enable them to better analyse in great detail how they are impacted by pollution and climate change.

Funding: £749,888.29

Automated in situ Plankton Imaging and Classification System (APICS)

Lead: Dr James Clark, Plymouth Marine Lab

This equipment will configure and deploy an automated, in situ, high frequency plankton imaging system within the WCO, a site just south of Plymouth in the English Channel, where researchers can track the health of the sea.

APICS will study trends in plankton abundance in fine detail, leading to improved understanding of plankton community dynamics, and the relationship between plankton and marine ecosystems as a whole.

Plankton is vital in providing food for other marine life and generating oxygen for the planet.

Funding: £651,197.40

A Swiss army knife for aerosol composition: a community chemical ionisation mass spectrometry facility

Lead: Professor Hugh Coe, The University of Manchester

This equipment is a next-generation, research community capability to measure atmospheric composition and to address critical science and policy-related problems.

Comprising a chemical ionisation mass spectrometer, it will sample molecules in particles and gases in a single high-resolution instrument, simultaneously running multiple ionisation sources.

By providing a multi-use, integrated and easy to use facility for trace particle and gas analysis, the equipment will:

  • provide deep understanding of atmospheric challenges in the face of the rapidly changing climate
  • understand the associated ecosystem responses
  • investigate a range of pressures arising from human activities.

Funding: £718,917.49

Rapid deployment seismic array

Lead: Dr Stewart Fishwick, University of Leicester

The facility will provide access to a rapid-deployment 60 sensor seismic array to the UK research community.

The next-generation system will allow scientists to track seismic activity in remote, inaccessible and challenging environments, such as glaciers.

The array of ‘Certimus sensors’ will provide both critical instrumentation, and unique, new benefits, such as tilt tolerance to plus or minus 90 degrees, enabling improved tracking of volcanic activity. The equipment is also lighter and uses less power than its predecessor.

Funding: £749,100.00

Distributed Strain, Temperature and Acoustic SeNsing Suite (DiSTANS)

Lead: Dr Jessica Johnson, University of East Anglia

The DiSTANS equipment will use state-of-the-art technology using fibre optic cables to provide a brand-new method of monitoring changes underground.

Because the fibre optic cable is the sensor, the underground conditions can be monitored for up to 15 kilometres at differences as close together as 25 centimetres and one hundred thousand times each second.

This means changes over large and small temporal and spatial scales can be measured.

This new technology measures very small vibrations, temperature changes and movements around the underground cable and can be used in many different places.

It can be used to monitor volcanoes and earthquakes, but can also be used to keep track of traffic and even people walking.

Funding: £454,484.02

Microfluorination for Oxygen isotopes in Biogenic Silica (MOBiS)

Lead: Professor Melanie Leng, British Geological Survey (BGS)

The new system will analyse sediment samples from a range of settings including the ocean, land and waterways.

It will help scientists understand historic changes in climate by analysing oxygen isotope compositions of biogenic silica, one of the most widespread biogenic minerals found in the world.

The equipment can analyse oxygen isotopes in any minerals that contain oxygen. This will enable the equipment to be used by a wider community and in other disciplines, for example the analysis of nuclear materials for isotope forensics applications.

Funding: £381,462.00

Improving environmental research through the isotope analysis of ever smaller archives

Lead: Dr Marc-Alban Millet, University of Cardiff

The purpose of this equipment is to set up the first UK-based thermal ionisation mass spectrometer equipped with a new generation of ultra-sensitive detectors. This will enable scientists to study what lies beneath us including earth’s magma and mantle.

Funding: £750,000.00

Next-generation CT for environmental sciences

Lead: Professor Sacha Mooney, University of Nottingham

The equipment is a state of the art, next generation X-ray CT scanner.

The focus of the equipment will be in soil security, especially associated with the current climate emergency. This is a priority in the UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan which identified the need to improve soil health and thus soil security across the nation.

The new scanner will be used to develop a new understanding for important soil mechanisms.

In addition, the scanner will be used to explore the potential of drought tolerant plants to manipulate the rhizosphere (including the soils closely adhering to roots) to improve water retention in soil and confer a resistance to the increasingly extreme weather events.

Funding: £714,276.00

A UK-based internally heated pressure vessel (IHPV) system for studying geological and environmental processes at crustal pressures

Lead: Dr David Neave, The University of Manchester

The IHPV system will bridge the existing gap in national capability by supporting high-temperature (up to 1250 degrees Celcius) and high-pressure (100 to 600 MegaPascal ) experiments on geological materials.

These conditions are relevant to many vital crustal processes. This asset will support a step change in research on magmatic, volcanic, ore-forming, and hydrothermal processes that address key and immediate science challenges that include:

  • natural and cascading hazards including
  • critical metals required for the energy transition
  • sustainable energy
  • planetary habitability
  • volcanology
  • environmental change.

Funding: £750,000.00

Scientific and technological innovation from mineral geonomics: a dual source microfocus single-crystal diffractometer for UK geoscience.

Lead: Dr Paul Schofield, The Natural History Museum

This will establish a UK-based X-ray diffraction facility that will place the environmental sciences community at the international forefront of high-pressure and high-temperature structural mineralogy.

The diffractor will expand our knowledge of mineral geodiversity and will be able to study minerals from the Earth’s deep interior.

This includes studying materials under realistic pressure and temperature conditions or as tiny inclusions from mantle diamonds, allowing us to refine our models of Earth’s structure, composition and dynamics.

Funding: £671,223.60

Top image:  Credit: Orchidpoet, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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