Atoms trapped for water studies
A new research facility will attempt to trap atoms to protect Australia’s groundwater.
The unique new lab at the University of Adelaide will use advanced laser physics to count individual atoms of the noble gases, such as argon and krypton, that are naturally found 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 Atom Trap Trace Analysis (ATTA) facility is a collaboration between CSIRO and the University of Adelaide.
“Australia relies on its groundwater for 30% of its water supply for human consumption, stock watering, irrigation and mining,” says Professor Andre Luiten, Director of the University’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing which houses the ATTA facility.
“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.”
ATTA’s analytic capability will also allow 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 says the new ATTA facility will enable 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,” says Dr Mallants. “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.”