CORVALLIS, Ore. - Oregon State University has received a grant of $1 million from the prestigious W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles, Calif., to establish a scientific "collaboratory," which researchers around the world soon will be able to access via the Internet.
With the grant, the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences will establish the "W.M. Keck Collaboratory for Plasma Spectrometry" on campus, linking state-of-the-art geochemical analysis capabilities to one of the most extensive supercomputing networks for marine research in the world.
The majority of the Keck funds will be used to purchase a $900,000 multicollector plasma mass spectrometer - an instrument capable of detecting precise isotope ratios of many elements on very small samples. There are only about a dozen such instruments in the world.
This instrument will be the keystone of the new collaboratory, completing a multi-instrument, interactive analytical facility that may be unique in the world.
"The remaining part of the Keck grant will be used to develop the unique and innovative interactive aspect of the collaboratory," said Gary Klinkhammer, a professor of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and director of the new facility.
Klinkhammer said those funds will be used to expand Internet bandwidth, allowing for the real-time audio and video transmission via the Internet that will be necessary for top-tier research access to the new instruments by users across the United States and around the world.
"The collaboratory is a laboratory without walls," Klinkhammer said. "Its boundaries extend beyond the oceans and atmosphere to encompass the other environmental sciences, engineering, electronics and archaeology. When the collaboratory is up and running, a researcher in Denmark or Australia will be able to use his or her computer to point a laser in the collaboratory at Oregon State University and analyze a grain of sand or the tiniest part of a mosquito or gnat.
"It will allow researchers at OSU and elsewhere to conduct precise, sophisticated analyses of a variety of materials, from computer chips to seawater samples, from tiny mineral grains in volcanic rocks to archaeological artifacts," Klinkhammer added.
The new multicollector spectrometer will be the flagship analytical instrument of the new W.M. Keck Collaboratory. Its purchase will complete a development process that began in the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences in 1992.
The multicollector spectrometer can give researchers the "isotopic fingerprints" of a wide variety of materials, at a level of detail that isn't available on less sophisticated spectrometers.
"Isotopic analysis greatly expands our capabilities, previously limited to analysis of elemental concentrations," said laboratory manager Andy Ungerer. "The facility already draws world class researchers, especially those studying marine science, from OSU, from other U.S. institutions including the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of Hawaii and Woods Hole/MIT, and from overseas institutions including Cambridge University and the Danish Lithosphere Center."
The potential of this new generation analytical capability is staggering, researchers say.
Isotopic analysis of very small samples could help determine if there has been life on Mars by looking for microbial evidence in Martian rock samples. It could help scientists discover whether dinosaur extinction was caused by an asteroid or comet collision with Earth, through the unique isotopic signatures left behind. And it could help researchers better understand how the fragile Arctic sea ice cover affects global ocean circulation and climate, by providing an elemental description of specific Arctic rivers and their flow patterns.
"With these new spectrometers and a laser you can determine the elemental and isotopic composition of just about anything," Klinkhammer said. "And you can do it without dissolving or destroying the material. That is really a key feature for archaeologists or researchers studying silicon chips, to cite a couple of examples.
"It will take us several months to get the collaboratory up and running, but when it is complete, we will have one of the most powerful analytical laboratories in the world," Klinkhammer said. "Determining precise isotope 'signatures' can tell us so much, yet it is a field that is just developing and is largely untapped. It will lead to new methodologies as important as the development of carbon isotope technologies for dating of materials in geology and archaeology."
The W.M. Keck Foundation is one of the nation's largest philanthropic organizations. Established in 1954 by the late William Myron Keck, the foundation provides grants focusing primarily on areas of medical research, science and engineering.