A unique new facility launched today at the University of Adelaide will help protect Australia’s precious groundwater from overuse and contamination, and contribute to our understanding of the impact of climate change through measurements on Antarctic ice cores.

[Music plays and an image appears of the CSIRO logo on a black screen]

 

[Image changes and new text appears: The Noble Gas Facility, Window to the Past]

 

[Image changes to show a view of an Australian landscape from a moving helicopter]

 

Narrator: Australia is ancient and flat.

 

[Image changes to show a view looking down on a riverbed]

 

Beneath its surface is slowly moving groundwater that can be up to 2,000,000 years old, some of the oldest water on the planet.

 

[Image changes to show water spurting from a tap in a dry landscape and then the image changes to show sprinklers irrigating a green crop]

 

Groundwater provides 30% of Australia’s water supply.

 

[Image changes to show a view looking down on a river and the camera slowly pans up the river]

 

But is that groundwater and rivers and springs fed by groundwater being used sustainably?

 

[Image changes to show two males walking down a corridor in conversation and then the image changes to show a male working in the Noble Gas Facility]

 

These questions and many more can now be tackled with unparalleled accuracy.

 

[Camera pans around the equipment in the Noble Gas Facility and then the image changes to show the Helix machine and then the camera continues to pan around the room and text appears: CSIRO Adelaide, Helix Facility]

 

Two new facilities have been added to an already unique Noble gas laboratory, making this combined research facility one of the most comprehensive Noble gas labs in the world.

 

[Image changes to show a view looking up into a cloudy sky and then the image changes to show water running over rocks]

 

When rain falls, some of it seeps into the ground and accumulates within porous rocks called aquifers.

 

[Image changes to show a view of a river and then the image changes to show a pump operating to pump the water]

 

Eventually this groundwater may reach the surface naturally or by extraction.

 

[Image changes to show a tap spurting water in a dry landscape and then the image changes to show a large sprinkler irrigating a lush crop]

 

Depending on the quality of the water and the amount it can be used for human consumption, stock water supplies, irrigation or in mining.

 

[Image changes to show a front and then rear view of a tractor ploughing a paddock and then the image changes to show a body of water]

 

As Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world groundwater is essential to meeting its water needs in most parts of the continent.

 

[Image changes to show a cracked dry lakebed and the camera pans over the surface]

 

With climate change and prolonged droughts surface water is becoming increasingly scarce so the use of groundwater is rising.

 

[Images move through to show a crocodile sitting in some water, a white water bird standing in amongst plants in the water, and then a pink water lily]

 

Knowing whether a source of groundwater is sustainable is vital.

 

[Image changes to show the Noble Gas Facility equipment and the camera pans around the room and then the image changes to show text on the screen: Helium, Argon, Neon, Xenon, Radon, Krypton]

 

And the key to determining the age and movement of water that can be from tens of years to millions of years old is to analyse traces of certain gases in the water which are collectively known as Noble gases because they don’t easily react with anything.

 

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This makes them ideal traces for groundwater studies.

 

[Image changes to show a view looking down into bubbling water]

 

Analysing Noble gases can tell us the history of Australian groundwater, its origins and how it has moved underground.

 

[Image changes to show two males setting up and operating some equipment outside and the camera zooms in on one of the male’s working on the equipment and then the camera zooms in]

 

The process starts in the field where sophisticated equipment can be used to extract large volumes of gas directly from a groundwater source.

 

[Images move through to show a male turning the tap on the equipment, a water sample being taken from a river by a person in a helicopter, and the person inside the helicopter holding the sample]

 

Alternatively water samples can simply be collected in the field in copper tubes that are tightly clamped off to ensure there is no contact with air.

 

[Image changes to show a male operating equipment in the Helix Facility and the camera zooms in on the equipment and then on the male at work and text appears: CSIRO Adelaide, Helix Facility]

 

The water samples are put in a gas preparation line where the gas is extracted using liquid nitrogen to freeze the water.

 

[Image changes to show a male turning the tap on the side of the machine and the camera zooms in on the male’s face and then on the tap he is turning on]

 

The Noble gas machine then separates individual gases at extremely cold temperatures.

 

[Images move through to show the male walking to a computer and looking at the screen, the Helix MC Plus machine, and a female and the male looking at the computer screen]

 

Once separated the new state of the art high resolution Helix mass spectrometer blasts each gas with electrons to measure the ratio of atomic variations, or isotopes of each gas at unprecedented resolution.

 

[Camera zooms in on the computer screen showing a diagram on the screen]

 

And it is these distinct ratios of Noble gases that define precise periods in the earth’s history.

 

[Image changes to show two males working on equipment in the Noble Gas Facility and then the image changes to show a hand operating a touch screen showing a wavy line type graph]

 

It’s now possible to investigate deep fluids that are more than several hundred million years old.

 

[Images move through of people walking along past a multi-windowed large building, two males walking towards the camera down a corridor, and equipment inside the Gas Facility and text appears: University of Adelaide, Atom Trap Trace Analysis Facility (ATTA)]

 

The Noble Gas Facility extends to the University of Adelaide Campus at North Terrace where teams from the University and CSIRO are finalising the Atom Trap Trace Analysis or ATTA Facility.

 

[Image changes to show a male working on the equipment and the camera zooms in on his face as he looks down]

 

ATTA uses advanced laser physics to measure Noble gases.

 

[Image changes to show the equipment again and the camera pans along the equipment to the male working on the equipment]

 

It complements the CSIRO equipment by targeting other isotopes of krypton and argon that exist only at ultra-low concentrations making them very difficult to measure.

 

[Image changes to show two males talking together inside the Facility]

 

However, through the ATTA Facility precise measurements become feasible and practical.

 

[Image changes to show a chart on a computer screen]

 

It is now possible to date groundwater samples from 1,000,000 years to just a few decades old.

 

[Image changes to show the two males working around the equipment in the Facility and the camera pans over the equipment in the room]

 

Because ATTA and Helix measure totally different Noble gas isotopes an unprecedented set of precise tools becomes available for Australian scientists.

 

[Image changes to show a map of Australia showing the Fitzroy, Darwin and Mitchell catchment areas on the map and then the image changes to show sprinklers irrigating a lush crop]

 

The Northern Australian Water Resource Assessment or NAWRA was a major government study to identify potential development opportunities such as irrigated agriculture that would need reliable and sustainable water supplies.

 

[Image changes to show Dr Chris Chilcott talking to the camera and text appears: Dr Chris Chilcott, CSIRO Research Leader for Northern Australia]

 

Dr Chris Chilcott: So, the new facilities are a fantastic resource for all groundwater researchers across Australia and particularly in the north where we don’t know much about the groundwater sources. It allows us to understand the sources of water, where they’re from, the age of the water, and what the recharge rates are and that then allows us to make decisions about sustainable extraction.

 

[Image changes to show a tap in a dry landscape spurting a stream of water]

 

And then that leads on to giving us opportunities for irrigated agriculture.

 

[Image changes to show three colleagues working in the snow with a snow vehicle in the background and text appears: Intrepid Science]

 

Narrator: And it’s not just limited to analysing water.

 

[Image changes to show a view of an Antarctic landscape and then the image changes to show a view looking down into an ice core]

 

The facility can be used to look further into the past of Antarctica’s climate by measuring age markers from gases trapped in Antarctic ice cores.

 

[Music plays and the camera zooms into the hole in the ice core]

 

[Image changes to show the equipment in the Noble Gas Facility and the camera pans around the room to show the equipment and then the image shows a male looking at the equipment in operation]

 

The recent investments in the joint CSIRO, University of Adelaide Noble Gas Facility, with new tools like the ATTA and Helix machines, will provide Australian researchers, government and businesses with a unique capability for collaboration on national water challenges.

 

[Image changes to show a male and female looking at a computer screen and then the image changes to show a view of a ute parked next to a water testing site in a paddock]

 

The knowledge the Noble Gas Facility provides will help protect our groundwater from overuse or contamination.

 

[Image changes to show a view looking down on a tractor towing a piece of equipment in a paddock]

 

It is a window to the past that will help secure Australia’s future.

 

[Image changes and the CSIRO, University of Adelaide, Science and Industry Endowment Fund and Australian Government Australian Research Council logos and text appears: CSIRO noble gas analysis capability is a joint partnership with the University of Adelaide. This research is supported by the Science and Industry Endowment Fund, The Atom-Trap Analysis Facility (ATTA) at The University of Adelaide was partially funded under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme]

 

[Music plays and the CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO Australia’s innovation catalyst]

The Noble Gas Facility, Window to the Past

Additional Resources

A collaboration between 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 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.

This is the first Atom Trap Trace Analysis facility in the Southern Hemisphere and, combined with CSIRO's complementary Noble Gas Facility at the Waite campus in Adelaide, gives Australia one of the most comprehensive noble gas analysis capabilities in the world.

"Australia relies on its groundwater for 30 per cent of its water supply for human consumption, stock watering, irrigation and mining," said 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 would 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 said the new ATTA facility would 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," Dr Mallants said.

"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."

The new ATTA facility is partially funded under the Australian Research Council's Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme.

Energy, mining and resources is a key industry engagement priority for the University of Adelaide and environmental sustainability is a research focus.

The CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, and the University of Adelaide in 2017 announced a new agreement to work together to tackle some of the big issues facing Australia and the region.

The two organisations agreed to build collaborations to advance research in key areas of mutual strength, with significant potential benefit to the Australian economy, society and environment.

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Images

  • Research technician working on noble gas mass spectrometry Laboratory equipment.

    Research technician Punjehl Craneat the CSIRO Noble Gas Mass Spectrometry Laboratory in Adelaide.  ©Nick Pitsas

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