UW-Eau Claire: Geology Department Acquires State-of-the-Art Technology

EAU CLAIRE — Students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and regional businesses will soon have access to a new piece of state-of-the-art, high-powered equipment capable of measuring elemental concentrations to the parts-per-quadrillion level.

UW-Eau Claire’s newly acquired High Resolution Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer — funded by a $425,000 U.S. Department of Education grant — will be available to students and local industry beginning in the fall, said J. Brian Mahoney, one of three geology faculty members who are getting the new equipment up and running this summer.

“It’s amazing,” Mahoney said of the capabilities of the spectrometer, which was installed in May. “With this equipment, I could dissolve your finger nail and measure the amount of lead contamination you have been exposed to.”

The technology is used by a variety of industries for many reasons, Mahoney said, noting that uses can range from homeland security to drug testing to geology to the food industry. The semiconductor industry is probably the biggest user, he said.

“Any industry that needs tight chemical controls uses this kind of technology,” Mahoney said. “Industries like paint or ink manufactures, where minute variations in chemicals can dramatically impact their product, will be interested in what this can do for them.”

The geology department will invite industry leaders to an open house this fall to discuss the technology and its potential uses.

“Once word gets out, I anticipate that a lot of local industries will be interested in using this technology,” Mahoney said. “If they have someone on staff trained to use it, they can pay us an hourly fee to use it or they can work with a faculty consultant on a project.”

Geology faculty already have identified several research projects that will use the spectrometer for analysis, Mahoney said. Examples include testing water springs in St. Croix County, analyzing heavy metal contamination of a river in Idaho, examining the composition of thermal springs in Yellowstone Park and analyzing a large granitic system in Baja, Calif.

“We’ll have students very involved in using this technology,” Mahoney said. “I already have two students set to work with me in the fall. They’ll be involved every step of the way.”

Experience with this kind of technology will open doors for graduates, Mahoney said.

“We’re better equipped than most large research institutions in this country,” Mahoney said of what’s available to science students at UW-Eau Claire. “It’s basically unheard of for undergraduate students to have experience with this kind of equipment. It just doesn’t happen.

“When it comes to using this kind of analytical equipment, our undergraduate students will have more hands-on experience than master’s students at big research institutions.”

As a result, UW-Eau Claire graduates will be heavily recruited to top graduate programs and will be sought after by businesses and industries.

“When the semiconductor industry and other industries learn that our students can do chemical and material characterizations on this scale, they’ll be in demand,” Mahoney said.

In the next year, Mahoney said faculty hope to get the lab certified so the state of Wisconsin can use it to conduct environmental testing. There are currently only two such labs in the state, he said, noting the labs are used to test for contaminants in groundwater and lakes and other hazards relating to environmental health.

“We’re excited about the possibilities that this kind of technology brings to campus,” Mahoney said. “We’re talking top-of-the-line technology that’s good for regional industry, our students and the state.”

The technology is part of UW-Eau Claire’s Materials Science Center, which brings together the university’s materials science resources in a way that makes it easier for the campus to help local industries, said Dr. Doug Dunham, the center’s director. Materials science involves the study of the structure and properties of materials, the creation of new materials and tailoring materials for specific uses. It includes things like metals, semiconductors, ceramics and plastics.

“The center provides a central connection to industry and the community that individual science departments cannot offer,” Dunham said, noting that advancing materials and developing new materials are important to economic development in the state.

For a fee, industries can use the center’s specialized instruments, providing them high-quality technology without the expense of purchasing or maintaining it, Dunham said.

The connections also help local businesses identify talented students who may be future employees and they help students better understand career opportunities available to them in western Wisconsin, Dunham said.

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