Mass spectrometer

A drawing of a multi-collector inductively coupled mass spectrometer, by the manufacturer, ThermoFisher Scientific. The machine measures and analyzes isotope ratios in heavy elements, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks is expecting to have this machine next fall. 

FAIRBANKS — A federal grant will allow the University of Alaska Fairbanks to purchase a high-tech machine that measures and analyzes isotope ratios in heavy elements such as mercury and lead, according to a UAF news release. 

“It’s a machine that can be used by many different disciplines,” said UAF professor Matthew Wooller, director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility. “The diversity of application could be very exciting I think. It could open up a whole bunch of areas of research.”

The machine, a multi-collector inductively coupled mass spectrometer, will be the first of its type in Alaska. Anthropology, biology and geology are a few of the disciplines in which it could be used, Wooller added. 

The purchase is made possible by a $580,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Infrastructure program. UAF is matching the grant, putting $250,000 toward the purchase. 

“I just put the purchase request in for the machine,” Wooller said. 

The van-sized machine will be built in Germany by ThermoFisher Scientific, shipped to Alaska and housed in its own lab in the new engineering building, Wooller said.  

The machine will be the only one of its type in Alaska. It will be the 49th of its kind in the United States. 

“It’s been a struggle to get the state to fund the completion of the rest of the new engineering building. It’s an extra piece of leverage, knowing this will be here,” Wooller said. 

The machine will be a benefit for students and professors who have had to travel Outside to conduct isotope research in the past. 

“I had a couple of grad students who finished not too long ago. They were having to go out of state, one in Oregon, the other Utah,” Wooller said. “They’d spend a big patch of their time living out of state.”

The isotope analyzing device will be available for anyone outside the university, too, Wooller said. The U.S. Geological Survey is an example of a group that might want to use the machine. 

The machine is expected to be operational by October 2017. 

How it works 

Wooller described the multi-collector inductively coupled mass spectrometer as a chemical analytical tool that reads chemical signatures that have been preserved in things such as fossilized bison teeth, fish ear bones and tree rings. 

Wooller said this machine can be instrumental in tracking the migration patterns of different animals.

A bison tooth grows in layers, Wooller said. As a bison eats grass and drinks water, it picks up different chemical signatures that originate in Alaska’s soil and geology. After the grass or water is ingested, that chemical signature makes its way into the bison’s tooth. 

Alaska’s geological chemical signatures vary from place to place. 

“As things like bison move around across Alaska, they pick up the diversity of chemical clues,” Wooller said. “So if you measure the layers of the bison tooth, it’s like a chemical GPS.” 

Contact staff writer Kevin Baird at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.