Water Sciences Laboratory: A Cutting-Edge Analytical Tool for UNL
When the state legislature created the Nebraska Research Initiative (NRI) in the late 1980's to fund basic research science and engineering to help Nebraska business, it would pave the way to what has become one of the finest analytical laboratories in the country.
Because of NRI funding, the Nebraska Water Center was able to open what was then known as the Water Science Research Facility (WSRF) under founding director Dr. Roy Spalding in 1990. WSRF (later Water Sciences Laboratory, or WSL) is in the former Wildlife Laboratory Building on UNL's East Campus, where it provides state-of-the-art instrumentation to measure organic and inorganic chemicals in the soil, streams and groundwater.
The lab's guiding purpose is to provide analytical capabilities necessary to assess, resolve, and remediate groundwater and surface water contaminants. It's capabilities, in terms of staffing, equipment and methodologies have grown steadily and solidly through the years, making it a research facility that stands alone in both the expertise and technical facilities to provide solutions to water-related problems not only in Nebraska, but nationally and internationally. Lab clients come from within and outside the university, each needing high-level accuracy or sophisticated procedures.
Having the WSL has been an important part of obtaining major research grants by NU and UNL faculty. An early example of this was the Management Systems Evaluation Area (MSEA) project, one of the largest research grants ever received up to that time by UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
A coalition of more than 20 UNL and U.S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service scientists worked on the USDA-funded water quality study throughout the 1990s. Thousands of groundwater samples were analyzed by the WSL for pesticides and nitrate for this project, and others, funded to study pesticide fate and transport. Methodologies developed to analyze herbicides and their degradation products under differing cropping and irrigation practices led to better understanding of how groundwater becomes contaminated and what can be done to minimize or prevent it.
Instrumentation and methods for stable isotope analysis have been a part of the WSL since it was established. Nitrogen isotope analysis of nitrate and ammonia is always in demand as a "fingerprinting" method for tracing the sources of contaminants. In 1992, the facility acquired a high sensitivity dual inlet stable isotope mass spectrometer that ultimately replaced the outdated systems originally installed. The semi-automated stable isotope mass spectrometer has been used for analyzing hundreds of samples for nitrogen isotopes, as well as for developing a high precision method for measuring what nitrogen gas enrichment does to bacteria denitrification in groundwater.
Two additional stable isotope mass spectrometers were added in 2002 to automate and improve precision of stable isotope analysis of water used as a trace for hydrologic studies. These automated systems can process and analyze samples much faster than using older off-line methods, thereby reducing costs and increasing the number of projects the methods can be used for.
In 1997, the lab got its first liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer (LC/MS). This led to developing methods for a whole new group of contaminants including explosives such as RDX (found in groundwater at former ordinance manufacturing plants in eastern and central Nebraska) and pharmaceuticals like tetracyclines, found in livestock waste.
The impact of these and other water-soluble compounds on water quality could not be studied until methods were developed to measure them, as well as other "emerging contaminants" in groundwater and surface water. Research using these methods has been applied to determine how contaminants such as RDX groundwater can be "remediated" or cleaned up using advanced chemical treatment technologies.
The technical staff at the WSL now conducts analysis of samples for water research for a broad range of contaminants and stable isotopes. This unique facility offers an array of analytical services that rival even the most well-equipped university or government research laboratory. The lab continues to develop and apply new methods using state-of-the-art technology to support water research in Nebraska and beyond.
Dr. Daniel D. Snow, who came to the WSL as a hydrochemist when the facility first opened, is now it's director of services and responsible to the Nebraska Water Center director for operation of the lab.