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

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.

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

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.

[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.

 

[Yellow dots appear moving over the words and the words disappear leaving a blank screen]

 

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

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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