University of Rochester

New Equipment Helps Scientists Detect Trace Amounts of Metals

August 28, 1996

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, University of Rochester scientists will soon be able to measure trace metals in samples including rocks, water and even tissue.

The NSF provided nearly $300,000, and the University added a matching $250,000 contribution, to fund a new mass spectrometer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. The instrument can detect minute amounts -- on the order of parts per trillion -- of metal atoms in a variety of substances. That's like detecting a single postage stamp in an area the size of New York City.

The new instrument is a high resolution inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, or HR-ICP-MS. While devices that separate molecules based on their charge and mass have existed for many years, the HR-ICP-MS uses a plasma to generate ions, allowing scientists to detect small quantities of most elements in the periodic table. An HR-ICP-MS uses a magnet to separate ions of similar mass, providing better sensitivity and allowing measurements of isotopic composition, an ability that is particularly useful for applications in geology, environmental science, biology and medicine.

The grant also includes funding for a laser ablation system that scientists will use to vaporize solids for analysis.

"The University of Rochester is now one of only a handful of academic institutions to have this capability," says Assistant Professor Ariel Anbar, the lead author of the grant proposal.

Anbar intends to make the mass spectrometer available to academic departments across campus. While geologists and environmental scientists will use it to measure trace metals in water or rock, the equipment also allows engineers or chemists to track impurities in materials and biologists and medical personnel to observe how trace metal pollutants affect organisms.