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New $3M accelerator a vital asset to NZ science - 19/05/2010

A new $3.4 million accelerator mass spectrometer, opened today at GNS Science by Research Science and Technology Minister Dr Wayne Mapp, represents a major step forward in helping New Zealand understand climate change and its possible impacts.

The new facility, the latest generation of accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS), forms the backbone of the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory at GNS Science’s National Isotope Centre in Lower Hutt. It is the only accelerator mass spectrometer of its type in the Southern Hemisphere.

Accelerator and scientists.

One of the new facility’s many applications is helping to improve the understanding of how carbon moves through New Zealand soils. Better knowledge of carbon dynamics in the environment will help the government develop appropriate policies to curb greenhouse gases.

The new facility is the largest single investment in scientific equipment for GNS Science since 1992, when the organisation became a Crown Research Institute.

It measures ultra-low concentrations of the isotopes carbon-14, beryllium-10, and aluminium-26 for applications in radiocarbon dating and earth sciences.

It is more compact and operates more simply and at a faster rate than the AMS system it has replaced, which is based on a 50-year-old Van de Graaff particle accelerator.

The new facility enables higher throughput and high-precision measurements on a consistent basis.

“The new accelerator system is a significant technical leap forward for New Zealand and consolidates our global standing in geochemical tracing and age-dating of geological and archaeological samples,” said GNS Science Chief Executive Alex Malahoff.

“It gives us a modern platform to conduct excellent science, it will help to strengthen the scientific research culture in New Zealand, and it will improve our ability to attract and retain world-class scientists,” Dr Malahoff said.

Accelerator and GNS Science Chief Executive Dr Alex Malahoff.

The Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory opened its doors in 1953 and is the oldest continuously operating radiocarbon dating laboratory in the world. By far the majority of its work is carbon-14 measurement for earth sciences, antiquities dating, and archaeology.

General Manager of GNS Science’s National Isotope Centre, Frank Bruhn, said the new facility would open exciting opportunities to address issues of importance to New Zealand such as climate change research.

“It expands our capabilities and enables us to measure the naturally occurring isotopes beryllium-10 and aluminium-26 for earth science and environmental research, in addition to carbon-14,” Dr Bruhn said.

“Beryllium-10 and aluminium-26 are used to determine the timing of glaciations, lava flows, tectonic uplift, and meteorite impacts. They also have applications in Antarctic and ocean research.“

In its commercial activities, the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory has an international reputation for the quality of its work and it dates between 2000 and 3000 samples annually for clients in New Zealand and overseas.

Dr Bruhn said the Laboratory provided exceptional customer service and fast turnaround times compared to many other accelerator mass spectrometry laboratories.

New accelerator mass spectrometer at GNS Science - Q & A:

1. In very simple terms, how does an accelerator mass spectrometer work?
It first converts sample atoms into a stream of ions. Using static electric and magnetic fields, it then accelerates, deflects, focuses and separates individualcharged ions on the basis of their mass. It then measures the intensity of each separated beam to arrive at an abundance ratio. Further 'offline' analysis is needed to convert this data into environmental parameters such as a calendar year.

2. How many radiocarbon laboratories are there in the world?
There are about 50 radiocarbon dating laboratories in the world, with 28 having accelerator mass spectrometry facilities. The new accelerator mass spectrometer is an integral part of the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory, which is recognised as part of the worldwide accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) laboratory network.

3. How many laboratories operate the same type of compact accelerator?
Ten other laboratories use the same type and size of accelerator mass spectrometer for radiocarbon measurements. However, the new facility at GNS Science is unique worldwide because it has been modified to measure the isotopes of beryllium-10 and aluminium-26 in addition to carbon-14. This versatility ensures it will contribute to a wide range of science applications in New Zealand.

4. What are the main advantages of the new facility?
High reliability, high precision, and low operating costs. It represents significant gains in efficiency and gives New Zealand a modern accelerator mass spectrometry facility that ranks among the best in the world.

5. What is the life expectancy of this new facility?
A minimum of 15 years.

6. How compact is the new facility compared to the one it has replaced?
The new facility occupies about 25 percent of the floor area of the one it replaces. The (old) Van de Graaff accelerator mass spectrometer is from a much earlier era and was imported from Australia in the early 1980s. It has been a worthy workhorse for New Zealand science and has dated about 50,000 samples during the past three decades.

7. How easy is the new facility to operate and can it work around the clock?
The modern operator system incorporates several layers of automation. Once a batch of 40 samples has been started and the optimal parameters set, the system can proceed unattended.

8. How many staff are needed to operate the new AMS facility?
Two full-time staff.

9. What materials can you date with radiocarbon dating?
Anything that once lived and containing carbon up to about 50,000 years old.
This includes wood, leather, bone, paper, seawater, gases, ice cores, pollen, pottery, coral, seeds, charcoal, blood residues, human remains, sediment, soil, shell, textiles, plant and animal tissue, insect remains, cave paintings, and natural resins. The Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory also plays a role in international radiocarbon calibration programmes.

10. What is the point of difference of the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory?
The new AMS system places the Laboratory in the top bracket of such facilities worldwide. Its high precision and reliability will enable GNS Science to provide an improved level of service to clients, particularly those who have special requirements such as very high precision, express service, or very small sample size – less than 0.0005g of carbon.

11. How much does it cost to have a sample dated?
The standard charge is $NZ820. This price reflects the complexity of the dating process, the expertise of the scientists and technicians, and the high-end equipment involved. This price is internationally competitive.

12. How long does it take to produce a date for a client?
It usually takes eight weeks from the time a sample is received. This can be shortened by several weeks if a client requests an urgent turnaround. An extra fee applies to express handling of samples.

13. What is the accuracy of AMS radiocarbon dating?
Usually plus or minus 35 years. With some samples, GNS Science can offer an enhanced accuracy service which delivers plus or minus 20 years.

14. What are the practical applications of carbon-14 dating?
Applications include dating antiquities, atmospheric studies, archaeology, climate research, oceanography, geology, earthquake and volcano research, marine biology and carbon dynamics.

15. Can you give examples of age-dating and tracing assignments the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory undertakes?

Earthquakes: Work with geologists to age-date pre-historic ruptures on major New Zealand faults including the Wellington Fault, the Alpine Fault, and the Wairarapa Fault to elucidate past fault behaviour and possible future earthquake threat.

Landslides: Age-date significant pre-historic landslides in New Zealand to elucidate possible future threat from this hazard.

Tsunami: Age-date pre-historic tsunami deposits on New Zealand’s coastline to elucidate size and frequency of these events and possible future threat.

Volcanoes: Age-date pre-historic eruptions from volcanoes in Auckland and the central North Island to elucidate past behaviour and possible future threat.

Archaeology: Work with archaeologists in numerous countries in the study of pre-historic societies and early human settlement.

Antiquities: Age-date antiquities and detect fakes for museums and art dealers internationally.

Marine biology: Help in the study of life cycles of commercial fish species in New Zealand to aid fisheries management.

Oceanography: Help with research on circulation pathways and quantity of inorganic carbon in Southern Hemisphere oceans to monitor changes in ocean chemistry.

Atmosphere: Help with research on atmospheric circulation in the Southern Hemisphere. Work with NIWA to maintain a record of carbon-14 concentration in the atmosphere in the Southern Hemisphere that dates back to the early 1950s.

Environment & climate research: Trace movement of carbon atoms through the environment to aid carbon accounting and thus enable the government and private sector to make informed decisions on how best to respond to the impact of, and adaptation to, climate change.