UNLV has won a nearly $700,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) award to bring a high-precision scientific instrument — the first of its kind in the state — to campus, in an effort to boost the university’s research power.
The sophisticated scientific device, which boasts a lengthy name, the “multicollector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer,” helps researchers measure concentrations of very rare, naturally occurring isotopes. It’s as big as a Volkswagen Bus, but can collect and measure items that are so tiny, they can’t be seen with the naked eye, or even with a traditional microscope.
“This is a significant milestone for the university, and will allow us to train our own students right here in Las Vegas, as they would be trained at other top research institutions around the country,” said Shichun Huang, assistant professor of geoscience and lead writer for the grant. “The instrument brings UNLV to the next level in research capability.”
The award will help the university to expand and support ongoing research in a variety of fields, including Earth, environmental and planetary science, geochemistry, geology, and archaeology, among others.
“It allows us to make such precise measurements that we can see variations we were never able to see before,” said Matthew Lachniet, a professor of geology at UNLV, and a co-writer on the NSF grant. “It opens up an entirely new toolbox for understanding how the Earth works.”
If the multicollector, Lachniet said, was a scale for weights, it would be able to weigh items plus or minus a millionth of a pound, as opposed to a traditional scale, which can only measure differences by one pound.
Lachniet is one of nearly a dozen researchers on campus who are currently working on projects that will benefit from the multicollector’s analytical capability:
- Lachniet goes caving in the Great Basin, across the southwestern U.S., and in central America to gather stalagmite specimens — which can date back 500,000 years — in order to explore and chart past climate change patterns. He’ll use the multicollector to analyze uranium isotopes that are naturally occurring in these cave deposits to understand past variations in climate, which provides key insights into the time scales and magnitudes of droughts.
- Huang studies the chemical and isotope compositions of oceanic islands like Hawaii in order to understand the dynamics within the solid Earth. He also studies chondrites, or stony meteorites, for insight into how the early solar system formed and evolved.
- Arya Udry, an assistant professor of planetary science, studies rocks from Mars. She’ll use the multicollector to analyze the chemical variations in Martian meteorites to better understand the interior composition, magmatic processes, and general evolution of Mars.
- Simon Jowitt, an assistant professor of economic geology at UNLV, will potentially use the multicollector to further our understanding of the links between large magmatic events, mineralizing processes, as well as the sourcing of the metals that make their way into ore deposits. This includes research into the Carlin-type deposits of northern Nevada, the second largest gold district in the world.
UNLV researchers currently travel across the country to do this work. Bringing a multicollector to campus will help the university save money, attract graduate students, and also form collaborations with scientists from other institutions within the Nevada System of Higher Education and across the U.S.
Udry also received a second grant for nearly $200,000 from NASA that will bring a laser ablation system to campus and be attached to the new multicollector. The system zaps rocks with a laser beam, which then produces aerosols that can be analyzed in the multicollector.
The university expects the multicollector, and the laser ablation system, to be installed within the next year in the Science and Engineering Building on campus. The devices will be part of the Las Vegas Isotope Science Laboratory, which is co-managed by Lachniet, Udry, Huang, and geosciences professor Ganqing Jiang.
“Combined, we’re pushing close to a $1 million in new instruments for our lab here on campus,” Lachniet said. “This investment enables us to pursue externally funded research grants that we were never able to pursue before, and continue to be competitive with other Top Tier research universities.”