We operate the first facility in the Southern Hemisphere for measuring stable noble gases in water, and are developing new facilities for measuring radioactive noble gas isotopes. The measurements will help us to better understand the age, recharge conditions and aquifer connectivity of our precious groundwater resources.

The challenge

Better understanding our groundwater systems

A high precision isotope mass spectrometer which tests gases taken from water samples. Pictured at the Noble Gas Facility at the Waite campus in Adelaide.  ©James Knowler + Crew

The 2001-2009 Millennium Drought in south-east Australia highlighted the value of the continent's groundwater resources. As we continue to use this valuable resource, and with a changing climate, we need a better understanding of our groundwater systems and how they are recharged to ensure that we also protect it from overuse and contamination.

CSIRO has capability in the use of environmental tracers across various projects. However, the existing environmental tracers have limited age range, are often not geochemically inert and provide limited information on recharge conditions.

Our response

Working with gas

Noble gases- helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon do not react chemically, and so we can trace them to:

Dr Axel Suckow, CSIRO. Dr Suckow is the manager: of the Environmental Tracer and Noble Gas Laboratory  ©James Knowler + Crew

  • see how quickly, or slowly, water moves through underground aquifers
  • better understand the connection between surface water and groundwater flow, and the replenishment of aquifers
  • see if water can move between shallow aquifers and deep underground aquifers through geological layers with low permeability.

We have built the Southern Hemisphere's first Noble Gas Facility for stable noble gases, especially adapted for Australian groundwater conditions. Situated in Adelaide, this facility will give us a much deeper understanding of the continent's groundwater systems and will play an important part in the Australia's groundwater research. The facility is one of only a dozen comparable facilities worldwide.

We are now developing, together with the University of Adelaide, the Southern Hemisphere's first capability for measuring the radioactive noble gas isotopes 39Ar, 81Kr, and 85Kr. These isotopes will allow us to quantify groundwater flow velocities in the time scales of decades, centuries and up to one million years.

The results

Putting the Noble Gas Facility to work

One of the first water samples to be tested at the Noble Gas Facility came from the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley. We tested it as part of our groundwater analysis for the $15 million Northern Australia Water Resources Assessment due to report in 2018 and which aims to identify the potential for more water-related development opportunities in northern Australia.

We are also analysing groundwater samples as part of research being conducted by the Gas Industry Social & Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA). GISERA is a collaboration between CSIRO, Commonwealth and state governments and industry, established to provide independent scientific research and information to communities living in regions where there is, or is proposed to be, onshore gas development. Research includes providing a better understanding of the potential impact on groundwater from unconventional gas development.

CSIRO has built the first Noble Gas Facility for stable noble gases (He, Ne, Ar, Kr, Xe) in water in the Southern Hemisphere, at the Waite campus in Adelaide.  ©James Knowler + Crew

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