The Time Of flight Isotopic and elemental Concentration (TOPIC) Facility for nano- to micrometer scale analysis of Earth and anthropogenic materials

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Ocean and Earth Science


Anthropogenic activities are having a dramatic effect on Earth's climate, its ecosystems and humanity. Although the sum total of these changes manifests at a global scale, many of the processes involved in causing anthropogenic environmental change operate at the micron and nanometre-scale (i.e. 10-1000x smaller than the width of a human hair). This is important because in order for environmental scientists to design strategies to solve these environmental problems we need to first fully understand them, and all the processes involved, across all the relevant scales. Addressing the micron to nano-scale however currently represents a huge analytical challenge that has, up to now, been the preserve of very large and expensive machines such as synchrotrons and nanoSIMS that have limited access. They also frequently require highly specialised sample preparation that prohibits the analysis of some materials and are often challenging to use to obtain fully quantitative analyses. On the other hand, more flexible and/or more readily available techniques such as laser ablation (LA) inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICPMS) or electron microprobe either don't have the spatial resolution or the detection limits to provide quantitative analysis of elements present at low concentrations on the sub-5 um scale required. In addition, they struggle to quantify the transient signals (frequently less than one second) that result from single micro-/nano-particle analysis. Consequently, developing solutions to some of the most pressing problems on the planet does not simply require more research - it requires a major advance in the capabilities of the tools of research.

Here we request funding for a new type of mass spectrometer that combines the flexibility of sample introduction (e.g. solids or liquids) of a traditional ICPMS with the time-resolved capabilities of time of flight mass spectrometry where all elements in a sample are measured simultaneously. This allows for a crucial advance - the accurate and precise full elemental determination of transient ion signals, with resulting potential for: (i) the analysis of single nanoparticles introduced into the ICPMS source one at a time; (ii) the generation of elemental maps of 2D surfaces (and 3D through depth profiling) at a sub-5 um resolution through the simultaneous full elemental analysis of each laser pulse.

The potential for such an analytical tool is enormous and the TOPIC facility housed at the University of Southampton will support a number of funded proposals and existing research. It will also enable new research by the UK environmental science community that ranges across NERCs remit from improving reconstructions of climate change over the last 100 years and better determining the sources of air pollution to improving our understanding of the growth of minerals to lock away carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and providing new resources to support green technologies. The facility will not only enrich our existing research in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and the UK science community, but we will also use this unique facility to leverage new research funding including from industry. Access and training will be provided to researchers from across academia and industry, building on our existing extensive collaborative network and commercial activities. By housing the facility in an existing UK and world leading geochemistry group, that is well-supported with considerable expertise with laser ablation and mass spectrometry, we will ensure the maximum value for the investment on behalf of the UK science and technology community.

Planned Impact

The TOPIC facility impact comprises (1) technological impacts that allow a step changes in the research activities, (2) societal and economic benefits resulting from this research and, (3) generation of new collaborative research. These form a virtuous circle. Advances in technology generate new research results that influence development of novel solutions to societal needs. Dissemination of results through scientific channels and publicity surrounding their implementation in addressing societal and economic needs encourages collaboration with new groups. This leads to further innovation in analytical developments and adoption of the latest technology and so on.
Societal and economic benefits: The TOPIC facility will provide researchers at the University of Southampton and within the wider UK Environmental Science community with the tools required to meet a number of timely challenges, including:
Air pollution: Effective mitigation of this issue requires an understanding of air pollution source, its spatiotemporal variability and its association with disease.
Carbon Capture and Storage: Reaching internationally agreed climate targets (e.g. 1.5 or 2 oC) will require some form of carbon capture and storage.
Metals for Green Energy: The low-to-zero carbon technologies required to reach net-zero carbon emissions result in a large and currently underappreciated demand for rare metals.
Environmental remediation: Nanoparticles are increasing used in a new generation of environmental clean-up methods with unknown environmental side effects.
Food Security: Understanding nutrient uptake by plants is key to predict nutrient dynamics and food supply in a changing climate.
Climate: Understanding past climate has important implications for quantifying the magnitude of future climate change and the scale of mitigation efforts required to reach agreed climate targets.
Outputs of the research:
1. Air Pollution: detailed TE analyses of um-sized particles collected from the atmosphere, and in cells and tissues exposed in vitro and in vivo
2. Carbon Capture and Storage: large data sets of micron-scale TE variations in mineral reaction rims in carbonated rocks and minerals
3. Metals for Green Energy: high resolution maps of economic elements in specific mineral phases at micron-scale
4. Environmental remediation: chemical characterisation of natural nanomaterials to yield unique insights into how they form and their impact on Earth cycles
5. Food Security: chemical maps of nutrient distribution in soils and their relation to plant growth at root hair scale
6. Climate: measurements of elemental uptake and the formation of biominerals that comprise coral reefs and marine plankton
These outputs will be tracked by dissemination of novel analytical methods and results in conferences, publications, social media and existing extensive stakeholder networks (see below).
1. Ongoing links with national and local government, local industry (e.g. ABP), and public interest groups to advise on efficient mitigation strategies for excessive levels of air pollution in the city.
2. Our participation in the Iceland and Oman natural CCS laboratories to develop effective methods for climate geoengineering.
3. Existing participation in NERC-funded critical mineral research projects (and links to industry e.g. Anglo-American) through identification of metallurgically viable deposits.
4. Ongoing NERC-funded research on nanoparticles in hydrothermal systems and to green chemistry solutions to environmental remediation and electrochemistry/catalysis through the Southampton University Research Institute for Industry (RIfI).
5. Existing links with industrial partners (e.g. Synenta and Bayer) to address practical food security and farming issues in a changing climate.
6. Designing effective mitigation strategies and quantifying magnitudes of climate change required to reach climate targets through our contributions to the 6th IPCC report.


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Description Unfortunately the delivery and installation of this equipment was delayed because of COVID. After a protracted period of development in collaboration with the suppliers we are now in a position to start collecting data. So although it is a little too early to talk about key findings, hopefully by next year papers using this machine will begin to be published.
Exploitation Route The techniques we will develop will be widely used by other institutions who have this equipment.
Sectors Environment

Description We have worked closely with Nu Plasma to develop laser ablation imaging on the Vitesse TOF-ICPMS. This work has also involved two of the leading laser ablation companies (ESL and Cetac/Teledyne). Publications will begin to be published in the next year and this will showcase their equipment leading to more sales.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Economic