Chemistry facilities

Chemistry often involves making measurements and the philosophy of our chemistry courses is that you ‘learn by doing’. Alongside lectures on theory, you are trained in the use of our extensive suite of instruments by experts in the field. You get hands-on experience of the instruments here throughout your BSc (Hons) and MChem (Hons) degrees in practical classes and as part of your final year research project. The analytical equipment available at Plymouth is state of the art and we are a world-renowned centre for the analyses of chemicals in the environment. Three of our laboratories are certified to the ISO 9001 standard and you will work in these during your chemistry degree. At the time of writing, it is thought that this is a unique opportunity for undergraduates within UK universities and the experience gained working to this standard further enhances our students career and employment prospects.

Fourier Transform Infrared (FT-IR), Ultraviolet-visible (UV/vis) and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy

These spectroscopic techniques are standard in Chemistry and are used to identify the structure of a molecule, obtain information about functional groups present or to determine the concentration of an analyte in solution. We have used NMR to identify a molecule produced by diatoms which live under sea ice in order to estimate the extent of Arctic sea ice in the past and predict the effect climate change will have on Arctic sea ice cover.

Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) and Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometry (ICP-OES)

These are techniques used to identify and quantify individual elements in a sample. Our industry standard instruments are located within a laboratory certified to ISO 9001 and are used for analysing samples from as diverse origins as the environment (soils, sediments, waters and vegetation), biological samples (tissues and foods) and industry (ores, alloys, paints, plastics, etc). Recent projects include the assessment of human uptake of arsenic from foodstuffs, nanoparticles in fish tissues, metals in soil samples from Tanzania and more locally, the impact of dairy wastewaters on local rivers.

Gas Chromatography with a Flame Ionisation Detector (GC-FID) and Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS)

Semi-volatile organic compounds can be separated in the gas phase and then identified and quantified with a suitable detector. GC-FID can be used to quantify separated analytes and has wide-ranging applications in the food, pharmaceutical and petroleum industries. Mass spectrometry is a technique that analyses ions based on their molecular mass. In GC-MS compounds provide characteristic ‘fingerprint’ patterns for each molecule. We use these techniques to identify organic pollutants and toxic compounds.  

High-performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) with UV and Mass Spectrometry (MS)

In HPLC molecules are separated based on their relative affinity between a solid stationary phase and a liquid mobile phase. We use HPLC-UV to quantify organic compounds in various sample types and HPLC-MS, which detect minute differences in the masses of compounds, for compound identification and quantitation. Applications include all areas of chemical science with a current focus on past environments and climate change.

Helium and Powder Displacement Pycnometry, Mercury Intrusion Porosimetry, Surface Area

Measuring the volume of an irregularly shaped object can be tricky, especially when it is porous. Our pycnometers measure the volume and density of a sample by the displacement of helium gas or a fine powder. Porosimetry can determine the size of internal pores of materials. Our instruments are located within a laboratory certified to ISO 9001 and these techniques can be used to investigate geological samples, soil, or samples of industrial interest. Surface area measurements are performed by measuring the amount of gas molecules adsorbed onto the surface to then gain information about the surface of materials such as catalysts. Recent work has involved power generation samples and novel catalysts.

Flow Injection Chemiluminescence (FI-CL)

Chemiluminescence, the emission of light as the result of a chemical reaction, is a highly sensitive analytical technique. We combine this with flow injection to separate Fe and Co from seawaters, allowing the measurement of these elements at natural levels. This is essential for understanding the biogeochemical cycles of these elements. Plymouth is a world leader in these measurements, and this allows us to predict the impact their scarcity in the marine environment will have on climate change and global heating. Recently, our work has focused on the challenge of miniaturising the instrumentation for use on autonomous underwater vehicles as well as on-going projects quantifying Fe in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (XRF)

This is the emission of characteristic ‘secondary’ (or fluorescent) X-rays from a material which can be used to quantify elemental concentrations in a sample. This instrument is also located within a laboratory certified to ISO 9001 and recent projects have investigated the transport of terrestrial materials into water courses to improve land management. As well as our laboratory-based instruments, we have a portable handheld XRF instrument so that measurements can be made almost anywhere. You may have seen reports of this recently in the national media, regarding lead contamination in playground equipment.

Gamma Spectrometry

Each radioisotope emits gamma radiation at specific wavelengths and this can be used to measure radioisotopes that occur naturally in the environment or are made in nuclear reactors. Again, this instrument is also located within a laboratory certified to ISO 9001. Recent projects have measured the amount of 210Pb in sediment and peat core samples to allow these to be dated and past environments to be reconstructed, while other projects have measured 7Be to track the movement of particles in the environment, and to track the release of U and Th from historical mine sites in our region.