A new isotope research network involving the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology will provide a world-leading ‘one stop shop’ service for UK scientists.
This integrated approach will streamline how the UK’s earth and environmental research community accesses some of the most cutting-edge analytical instrumentation, expertise and training available.
Isotopes are atoms that are variants of chemical elements which differ in the number of neutrons they have, and atoms with a higher number of neutrons have a greater mass and consequently instability. Studying them is a significant tool to evaluate key biochemical and geochemical processes.
Research conducted through the National Environmental Isotope Facility (NEIF) will focus on a wide range of Earth processes, from earthquakes and ecosystem function to human evolution and climate change. It will collaborate with universities and other research centres to ensure it constantly evolves to meet the needs of scientists and industry.
The NEIF will receive £15m over five years from the National Environment Research Council (NERC) as part of National Capability funding. It is a partnership between the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), the University of Bristol, the University of Oxford and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH).
Research on behalf of NEIF will take place at these institutions’ laboratories, bringing together their different specialist studies into an integrated one stop shop service.
CEH’s isotope laboratory in Lancaster, which was set up in 1984, specialises in analysing biological components and trace gases derived from terrestrial, freshwater, polar and marine environments. The investment by NERC includes a renewal of funding for staff at the lab for the five years, worth about £1.1m over that time.
Dr Gloria Dos Santos Pereira, Head of Analytical Chemistry at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, says: “CEH’s isotope laboratory has successfully supported the UK’s terrestrial and freshwater research community for the past 35 years.
“Our projects range from identifying and addressing the impacts of pollution and climate change, to evaluating biodiversity changes and safeguarding the UK’s soils and carbon stocks. The excellence of the CEH laboratory is illustrated by new developments in automated low-level greenhouse gas technologies and specialist isotopic analyses that are so important to the bio-environmental sciences.
“We are very excited to be part of the new integrated national isotope facility and to continue to provide excellence and leadership in environmental isotope analyses.”
Dr Andy Stott, Team Leader of CEH’s stable isotope laboratory and Facility Manager for NEIF, explains: "The NEIF will provide a single, outward-facing isotope and molecular characterisation service that will offer UK researchers every possible type of isotopic analysis currently available worldwide. In terms of capability, it will be unique within the UK and matched by only a handful of facilities across the globe.”
Further information on isotopes
Isotopes are atoms of elements that contain the same number of protons in the nucleus but differ in the number of neutrons; the more neutrons, the heavier an atom becomes, as well as becoming more unstable and uncommon in occurrence. Both organic and inorganic matter contain elemental isotopes in unique proportions.
Biological, chemical and physical processes significantly change the natural ratios of these isotopes and by measuring isotope ratios by specialist mass spectrometry instruments, we can discover a lot about the global cycle of different chemical elements, food webs, ecosystem dynamics and natural processes.