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Ultra-trace element fingerprinting of geological and environmental archives

Final Report Summary - CHEMICAL FINGERPRINT (Ultra-trace element fingerprinting of geological and environmental archives)

The over-arching aim of this project was to set up a new state-of-the-art European ultra-trace element geochemical facility for refining geochemical fingerprinting. Using this facility and the methods established in it, three scientific objectives were proposed:

i) is it possible to detect the deposit of Icelandic volcanic ash in Irish peatlands?;
ii) can trace metals be used to distinguish between microbial and multi-cellular life forms and help reconstruct biological evolution in the ancient rock record?
iii) is it possible to detect the source of elevated volcanic sulphur in Greenlandic ice by measurement of invisible volcanic ash.

The project succeeded in setting up the envisaged facility at the host institution and it advanced the state-of-the-art in ultra-low concentration analysis. This was achieved mainly by optimising a new miniaturised device for transfer of the sample into the mass spectrometer and by miniaturising the sample preparation steps (using less reagents, smaller vessels, smaller tubes, etc.). Once established, the following scientific discoveries were made:

i) It was indeed possible to detect optically invisible volcanic deposits in Irish peat. However, the presence of volcanic ash can only be quantified against a careful study of the background sediment in the peat requiring a lot of data. The pilot data generated in this project contributed to a new FP-7 ITN proposal, which was eventually funded ( and in which a dedicated PhD project is now fully exploiting the new method for peat analysis.

ii) It was possible to use vital metal abundances in carbonate rocks of great age to distinguish been abiotic and microbial, and between microbial and skeletal origin. This work resulted in a total of 4 scientific manuscripts, two of which were published during the project period.

iii) Melted ice (from a Greenland glacier) in which volcanic aerosol deposits had been postulated on the basis of elevated sulphur contents was analysed with the new methodology to test whether or not, associated other volcanic aerosol components could be detected. These tests were not conclusive as the contaminant contribution from the plastic in which the melted ice was transported was erratic.

The main societal impact of the project was achieved through training. The project funded one PhD student who completed the carbonate study and was trained in state-of-the-art trace element geochemistry. The facility also trained a number of further early career researchers at the host institution. Several of these are now employed in other European countries (Germany and Switzerland) as postdoctoral fellows and PhD candidates and are helping to further disseminate the scientific know-how developed in this project. The facility and newly developed expertise also helped the host institution to participate in a new research centre for applied geosciences ( which has multiple societal impact by helping Ireland to provide more secure energy, raw materials and preserve its groundwater.

Over the project period, the fellow has been well integrated into the EU academic landscape and his career has advanced and is stable thanks to permanent employment at the host institution. Thanks to the established facility, the fellow was successful in participating in further FP7 projects (ITN), won national funding from Science Foundation Ireland and is participating in a number of research projects with state-funded research bodies (such as the Irish Environmental Protection Agency). This has allowed the fellow to grow a research group of ca. 8, consisting of postgraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and a research assistant. The project also facilitated dissemination of results at international meetings (e.g. Rome and Prague), where new scientific collaborators were met (e.g. Tübingen). The collaborative work within the host institution was also advanced with projects between geology, civil engineering, zoology and physics, all building on the chemical fingerprinting facility.