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SA gets Clean Lab

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South African scientists are now on par with their international peers with the completion of the first ‚’Trace and Experimental Biogeochemistry Clean Lab’ on the African continent at Stellenbosch University (SU).

The R2.2 million laboratory was funded by Stellenbosch University and the Department of Science and Technology through the CSIR’s Southern Ocean Carbon-Climate Observatory (SOCCO) programme and took three years to complete.

Up until now South Africa did not have the facilities or capabilities to develop and set up methods to measure bioactive trace elements in seawater. Scientists had to send their samples to labs in the United States and Europe for analysis a very costly and time-consuming exercise.

With this world-class facility now up and running, scientists are able to participate in long term international observational programmes such as GEOTRACES, which aims to improve the understanding of biogeochemical cycles and large-scale distribution of trace elements and their isotopes in all the major ocean basins over the next decade.

This facility is part of an integrated research infrastructure development strategy, which also includes new analytical equipment and ultra-clean container labs for ocean sampling in the new research ship SA Agulhas II, managed by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

This kind of research is important to understand how the chemistry of the oceans is changing in response to changing environmental conditions.

Prof Alakendra Roychoudhury, head of the Department of Earth Sciences at SU and responsible for the new clean lab, explains: ‚”Our understanding of trace elements like iron and how it interacts with life in the oceans is surprisingly incomplete. We all know that iron is essential for phytoplankton growth and productivity, but we still need to understand how and in what form iron becomes available to phytoplankton.‚”

Having access to this kind of facility also offers the university the opportunity to train and develop the next generation of scientists, he adds.

According to CSIR oceanographer and head of the SOCCO-programme, Dr Pedro Monteiro, recent estimates indicate that approximately 50% of all CO2 emitted by human activity is stored in the Southern Ocean: ‚”The future trajectory of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and thus the constraints on the minimum emissions reduction rates thus depends critically on how the Southern Ocean carbon cycle will adjust to climate change, and iron biogeochemistry is a key part of this response,‚” he says.

What is a clean lab?

A ‚’clean lab’ is a sterile environment and the air is virtually free from any form of contamination only ten thousand (>=0.1 ¬µm) particles per 1 cubic metre of air floating around enabling scientists to measure minute quantities of iron and other metals in seawater samples.

Prof Roychoudhury says he had to project-manage the construction of the lab to the tiniest detail. For example, they could not use any nails in the construction of the lab and all plugs had to be covered, all to prevent any form of metal contamination of the samples.

The 20 square metre lab consists of three separate rooms with the air pressure from high to low to ensure that contaminated air does not enter the third (and cleanest) room. In other words, when you open a door to open the lab, air will flow out of the room and not the other way round.

Scientists also have to wear protective clothing, foot covers and gloves when they enter the lab.

Future research will focus on the development and setup of methods to measure bioactive trace constituents in seawater: the speciation, distribution and uptake of iron by phytoplankton: and global and regional scale numerical modeling of bioactive trace metals.

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