05/11 - An Update from the Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory

By: Daniel Snow

The past year has been a whirlwind of activity at the Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory (WSL).

We have been able to implement many of the recommendations from our recent external review, including developing a business plan and hiring a laboratory research manager. This progress has led us to thinking more about the long term.

Conditional support from our University of Nebraska colleges that benefit from WSL expertise, equipment and services allowed us to think about a strategy to build on successes, learn from failures, and improve the way we operate.

Through a grant from the Nebraska Research Initiative, and cost shares from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) and Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, we were able to replace an outdated inductivity coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) that was no longer possible to repair or operate. In September 2017, we installed a Thermo ICAP RQ ICP-MS interfaced with a Dionex ICS5+ ion chromatograph (IC). This “IC-ICP-MS” is state of the art for measuring different forms of metals and metalloids such as arsenic that occur in Nebraska ground and surface water. Distinguishing forms of trace elements such as arsenic will help better understand the processes that lead to contamination of water supplies and, more importantly, what can be done to prevent or mitigate contamination.

Early this year we finished the complex and extremely time-consuming task of assembling and testing equipment for noble gas extraction and analysis of helium isotopes for groundwater age dating. This complex and highly sensitive technique will permit estimation of groundwater age (up to 50 years post recharge) and will show where an aquifer is more rapidly recharged in Nebraska.

Pairing the groundwater age dating with our new nitrate isotope methods puts our laboratory and our university at the forefront of research needed for managing groundwater for multiple purposes in agriculturally intensive regions.

Over the course of 2017, we received almost 6,800 samples for more than 80 different testing methods. We developed several new methods for antibiotics, insecticides and stable isotopes. Though we offer routine testing for water chemistry and quality, our focus continues to emphasize specialized methods not available anywhere else.

These new methods now include a single rapid, high precision determination of nitrogen and oxygen isotopes in nitrate at a fraction of our previous cost for this service.  Our new website provides information to better support researchers using the WSL and includes links for training, policies and a complete description of laboratory services and costs for analyses.

This year we will be formalizing our student training program and will be doing more promotion to help reach new users about all the equipment and resources that are available in our facility. I am grateful to our hard-working students and staff who help keep this operation running smoothly, and to the NU faculty and administration who understand the benefits of a state-of-the-art water laboratory in Nebraska.