A stand-out new facility officially launched at the University of Adelaide on Monday to measure the age and origin of groundwater and Antarctic ice cores.
A collaboration between Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the University of Adelaide, the Atom Trap Trace Analysis (ATTA) facility uses advanced laser physics to count individual atoms of the noble gases, such as Argon and Krypton, that naturally occur in groundwater and ice cores.
Measuring the ultra-low concentrations of these radioactive noble gases allows researchers to understand the age, origin and interconnectivity of the groundwater and how it has moved underground through space and time.
The ATTA facility, the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, is located within the University of Adelaide’s main city campus.
The CSIRO’s Noble Gas Facility (also a first for the Southern Hemisphere) became fully operational earlier this year. It is located at the Waite campus, approximately 8 kilometres south of the Adelaide CBD.
The two facilities are complementary as they test for different isotopes to broaden climate research on fossil groundwater. Together they give Australia one of the most comprehensive noble gas analysis capabilities in the world.
Professor Andre Luiten is a Director at the University’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing – which houses the ATTA facility.
He explained that Australia relies on its groundwater for 30 per cent of its water supply for human consumption, stock watering, irrigation and mining.
“With climate change and periods of prolonged drought, surface water is becoming increasingly more unreliable and the use of groundwater is rising. We need to make sure it’s sustainable.”
“Because noble gases don’t easily react chemically, they are the gold standard for environmental tracers to track groundwater movements. Before this new facility, researchers wanting to measure these ultra-low concentrations of noble gases had to rely on a very small number of overseas laboratories which can’t meet demand for their services,” Professor Luiten said.
ATTA’s analytic capability will also enable researchers to look further into the past of Antarctica’s climate, building understanding of global environmental change.
CSIRO Senior Principal Research Scientist, Dr Dirk Mallants, said the new ATTA facility will assist researchers to determine how old groundwater is from decades and centuries up to one million years.
“This allows us to understand the sources of water, where it comes from and what the recharge rates are,” he detailed, “that then allows us to make decisions about sustainable extraction.”
This is critical where development of any kind might use or impact groundwater systems – from urban development where groundwater systems are used to supply communities, to agricultural and mining development.
“It will provide Australian researchers, government and industry with unique capability of collaboration on national water challenges,” Dr Mallants added.
The new ATTA facility is partially funded under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme.