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Montana Tech to Acquire Montana Only Stable Carbon Isotope Analyzer


Montana Tech was recently awarded a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation award (NSF-MRI) in the amount of $183,615 to acquire a Stable Carbon Isotope Analyzer for campus. The project is under the direction of Dr. Stephen Parker, principal investigator and Chemistry professor; Dr. Christopher Gammons, co-principal investigator, Geological Engineering department head and professor; Dr. Glenn Shaw, co-principal investigator, Geological Engineering assistant professor; and Dr. John Metesh, co-principal investigator, director of the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology (MBMG) and State Geologist.

“I am honored to have received this award but I must acknowledge the invaluable assistance of my co-investigators and Bev Hartline of the Montana Tech Research Office for their help in preparing/critiquing the proposal,” said Dr. Stephen Parker. “This instrument will add a new dimension for environmental research at Tech as well as with our many collaborators at other institutions.”

The analyzer will allow the investigators to continue and expand their research and monitoring efforts in the area of biogeochemical processes affecting rivers, lakes, groundwater and geothermal waters as well as carbon bearing rocks and minerals. The use of environmental isotopes, in general, provides a tool to help researchers interpret and understand processes in natural systems. Carbon stable isotopes, in particular, provide a unique way to "fingerprint" sources of carbon in various environmental compartments (e.g., photosynthetic pathway of plants, biologic vs. geologic vs. atmospheric sources), and can also be used to help quantify rates of processes that influence ecosystem changes over a range of scales (e.g., aerobic and anaerobic respiration, photosynthesis, etc).

“Kudos to Steve Parker and his colleagues for getting this proposal funded in a very tough funding year,” noted Dr. Beverly Hartline, Vice Chancellor for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. “Their key to success was presenting the extraordinary scientific benefits this instrument will have far beyond our campus, by describing and featuring sixteen different research topics in eight major areas: ranging from surface and groundwater biogeochemistry to environmental impacts of pharmaceuticals, geothermal studies, and agricultural topics. Some of these projects are led by faculty at the University of Montana and Montana State, creating a very competitive collective and collaborative impact that clearly impressed the reviewers.  We are looking forward to the instrument’s delivery and the advantage its availability will give to Montana-wide and Montana Tech research going forward.”

The range of topics that will be investigated using this instrument is extensive and includes tracking effects of climate change through carbon isotope composition changes on watershed scales; quantifying changes in the processing of carbon through surface and groundwater systems; investigating the sources of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in drinking water; determining the origins of carbonate minerals in rocks or mineralized veins; determining biotic vs. abiotic sources of methane in natural gas reservoirs; and water-rock interactions associated with CO2 sequestration.

This piece of equipment, which is the only one of its kind in Montana, will:
1) expand the investigative capabilities of Montana Tech, the MBMG and collaborating researchers across the Montana University System (MUS);
2) facilitate pure and applied research in the general area of aquatic and terrestrial environmental science at a campus that is a non-PhD-granting RUI institution in an EPSCoR state;
3) provide a relatively easy-to-use educational tool that will be integrated into new and existing courses at Montana Tech;
4) provide research opportunities and technical training for multiple graduate and undergraduate students on the theory and application of stable isotope analysis;
5) promote collaboration with the MBMG to better evaluate biogeochemical processes in groundwater and surface water in Montana; and
6) promote interdisciplinary collaboration between Montana Tech and researchers at other units of the MUS, an important objective of the recent Montana NSF-EPSCoR award.

For more information about this award, please contact Dr. Stephen Parker at 406-496-4185 or sparker@mtech.edu.