A SelFrag facility to underpin UK geoscience

Lead Research Organisation: Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC)
Department Name: SUERC


The UK is at the forefront of geoscience, which includes isotope metrology, micropalaeontology and crystallography. All these techniques rely on the measurements of natural samples (rocks, soils, fossils, minerals, metals, animal matter) from which specific components can be isolated. These components have to be contaminant-free and in some cases, such as microfossil examination, diatom characterisation, and thermal history reconstruction using thermochronology the component parts need to be intact (e.g., complete apatite crystals). The SelFrag system is a laboratory scale solution for selective fragmentation of a wide variety of materials used across the NERC science remit. It is the only extraction system that can liberate such components whole without mechanical breakdown of the materials. The SelFrag uses a high voltage discharge to fragment batches of material and liberate individual components from the whole, whether rock or electronic waste. The SelFrag system is self-contained, compact, and constructed in Switzerland to meet all EU health and safety regulations. The system is ideal for use in geosciences, mining, and recycling research and establishment of this capability in the UK is long overdue. Currently numerous laboratories and investigators throughout the UK access this capability abroad on a pay-as-you-go basis - UK research funding is supporting international operations, which is both a waste of money and turnaround is slow. For researchers without funding to pay for access, this technique is inaccessible and studies have to make do with inferior samples for analysis.

Currently SelFrag is not available in the UK and hence establishment of this laboratory will provide a unique analytical resource. SUERC will operate this laboratory in an open access format through the NERC National Environmental Isotope Facility, a cluster of laboratories that provide community provision in isotope geochemistry. By using this delivery model the SelFrag capability will be accessible by all UK investigators that work within the NERC remit. Under the auspices of UK Research and Innovation, the project team will also look to provide provide unique sample preparation solutions to researchers operating within the remit of STFC and EPSRC (e.g., meteorite research, electronics, recycling). Our proposed delivery model will ensure maximum impact from NERC capital investment, the kit underpinning the first steps of many scientific experiments/projects - sample preparation.

Scientists and technical staff who are currently employed at SUERC will operate the SelFrag system thereby providing significant added value to NERC and the UK user community. The team that will deliver the capability are experienced in delivering community-based technical facilities and capability - the SelFrag is highly complimentary to the capability offered by NEIF. Community demand has been established through protracted discussion with PIs and the NERC Doctoral training Partnerships and the establishment of a SelFrag laboratory at SUERC has potential to benefit every academic institution within the UK and provide cutting-edge training to PhD students in the environmental sciences. It will allow for UK-based scientists to be competitive internationally with respect to preparation of minerals, rocks, metals, fossils etc. and thus remain at the forefront of their areas of research.

Planned Impact

The capital investment will facilitate, support and encourage best practice in research from the bottom-up, technology and new ideas. Sample preparation is an early and critical step in most environmental science studies and as such, the SelFrag and NERC investment will deliver maximum impact to a large number of NERC funded research projects, annually. Across the twenty-year lifetime of the instrument the investment will have significant impact on the UK user community. The impact will be captured using the formal processes employed by the NERC NEIF, through tracking of projects from initial conception to delivery (publication, conference presentation, PhD and MSc thesis). The NERC Benefit Realisation Plan, which captures all NERC NEIF metrics, will be utilised to document the impact and this system is linked to annual updating of the Researchfish system. In house impact will be recorded and tracked using the Researchfish system. Innovations will occur through the collaborative SUERC-SelFrag relationship. Specifically we anticipate utilising the technology to target disaggregation of materials for recycling and landfill.

The benefits of integrating the SelFrag system within a single national facility are that it will be ''greater than the sum of its parts''. The combined strategic nature of NEIF, with clear community input via the NERC Strategy Group and steering committees, acts as a catalyst for delivery of NERC science priorities. In addition to the direct support of projects and provision of training, the sustained support and critical mass of NERC facilities will enable this new capability to best fit the user community needs and through time. In addition, there are health and safety benefits in that the SelFrag does not produce dust during disaggregation. As demonstrated by the letters of support, there is already a network of UK researchers who actively want to access the SelFrag laboratory. Delivery of the project aims/objectives will bring new users to the NEIF.

Based on stakeholder analysis conducted by the PI, stakeholders can be broadly grouped as highlighted below. Critical is that SelFrag is an underpinning technique for sample prep. and as such it has impact in many environmental science projects and thus reaches a wide range of beneficiaries.

- Policy stakeholders: including Defra, DECC, the Devolved Administrations, agencies such as Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, Climate Change Adaptation Sub-Committee, Natural Capital Committee and Forestry Commission. The PI has a strong working relationship with these agencies through his grant-funded portfolio of work.

- Research organisations with interests in geology, physical geography, soil science, recycling, including Higher Education Institutes, NERC DTPs, UKRI funded Centres and other Government funded research institutes such as SAMS. Other UKRI bodies such as EPSRC and STFC.

- Publics with interests in conservation, mineral resources, climate change, and who pursue recreation and tourism in archaeological sites.

- Industry related to minerals and metals.

- Tourism and recreation interests, ranging from SMEs and their representative organisations (e.g. the Confederation of Small Businesses) and Local Access Groups to a wide range of
organisations, associations and clubs, such as the British Mountaineering Council and the Ramblers Association.

Summary of resources:

1. From NERC: £240,000 + VAT (import) for purchase of the instrument.

Note that SelFrag are the only supplier of the requested equipment so a single quote has been attached.

2. SUERC contributions, minimum of £945,000 over the lifetime of the instrument:
a. £30,000 for refurbishment of a laboratory
b. £15,000 for SelFrag service contract
c. £45,000 annually for dedicated technician to work with the user community
d. Oversight from PI and Co-I (couple hours per week)


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