Tons of equipment for nanograms of science

09.05.2012|Potsdam:
On Wednesday, 9th May 2012, a special truck with air suspension will load a 1 ton heavy secondary ion mass spectrometer (SIMS) of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences which will then transport it to the Helmholtz Centre Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR). This event marks the beginning of a close cooperation between the two Helmholtz sister institutions in Potsdam and Dresden, which will also in future include other Helmholtz research centres and universities.

Ultra-precise measuring instrument moves from Potsdam to Dresden

09.05.2012 | Potsdam: On Wednesday, 9th May 2012, a special truck with air suspension will load a 1 ton heavy secondary ion mass spectrometer (SIMS) of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences which will then transport it to the Helmholtz Centre Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR). This event marks the beginning of a close cooperation between the two Helmholtz sister institutions in Potsdam and Dresden, which will also in future include other Helmholtz research centres and universities.

This heavyweight SIMS is used for a highly sensitive measurement of lightweights: secondary ion mass spectrometry is one of the most important micro-measurement methods in science, able to determine the concentration of trace elements on very small samples. First, ions are focussed onto the surface of a polished sample which is under vacuum. This removes surface atoms, a fraction of which are in turn ionized. Such "secondary ions" can then be analysed using a mass spectrometer. The achieved detection limit: Out of even twenty million atoms, a single one can be signalled. This allows, for example, the determination of tiny traces of precious metals in sulphide mineral, from which the formation of ore deposits can be explored. This information can help find new mineral resources.

The GFZ has operated a SIMS instrument since 1998, mainly for the determination of trace element concentrations and isotope ratios. As a result of this work 86 articles have to date been published in renowned scientific journals, based on collaborations with partners from all six continents.

The major piece of equipment is moving to Dresden, where its new environment will allow it to perform even better: The HZDR operates a large device, an ion accelerator, funded by the European Union (ERDF European Regional Development Fund). This powerful tool will be connected to the SIMS. "This summer the SIMS will be installed as ion source on our 6-megavolt accelerator," said Professor Roland Sauerbrey, the Scientific Director of the HZDR. "In its new environment in Dresden, this device can perform 10 to 100 times more sensitive measurements as compared to its earlier life in Potsdam, which is very important for the investigation of mineral resources." It will make Dresden the first site world-wide site with a so-called his Super-SIMS which is specialised for the study of natural resources.

That said, in Potsdam the SIMS research is far from over. In winter a new analytical tool, weighing in at about 10 tons and with a length of 6.5 meters will be delivered. Due to its size, the exterior facade of a building will have to be partially removed in order to bring the device into the lab. "In the spring of next year we plan to re-start our SIMS laboratory. The isotopic measurements will then be about five times more accurate, and ten times faster than before," says Professor Reinhard Huettl, Chairman of the GFZ. “The GFZ will then be the fourth location within the EU with such a measurement technology for the analysis of rock samples."

The two Helmholtz centres are the focal point for a network of SIMS technology within the Helmholtz Association. In 2013 an additional SIMS unit will also be set up at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig to study biological processes in the human environment. The relatively high investment in three Helmholtz centres will require, of course, that these instruments be operated at maximum efficiency. With this goal in mind, a networking based on a new remote control protocol is being developed, which will enable all three partner centres to access the complete range of SIMS technology. The new partnership concept will be completed by 2015, by which time all three laboratories will be available worldwide for research purposes.

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