Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer


by Maggie Hedlund ‘09

The slight humming noise you hear as you walk by Nobel Hall of Science room 211 is from a machine that’s making its job count... Okay, the machine’s job is to count.

Nobel Hall 211 is home to Gustavus’s own Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer (or more easily known as an ICP-MS). The ICP-MS is a scientific instrument that measures the amount of about 75 different elements on the periodic table that could be found in water, sediment, soil, or rock. You’ve probably heard about mass spectrometers if you watch crime shows on TV.

Gustavus students from an array of majors are interested in looking at the varying amounts of major elements (such as calcium, potassium, and aluminum), toxic metals (like mercury, lead, and cadmium), and rare earth metals that can be detected in any organic substance. The Gustavus ICP-MS is used mostly to study Southern Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, land, and wetlands.

The ICP-MS really gets a workout at Gustavus. Year-round, students and faculty are busy working with the ICP-MS to analyze their field samples. What’s the greatest part about Gustavus’s ICP-MS? It is a piece of scientific instrumentation that is primarily used for undergraduate student research. If you have a curiosity about our natural world and what helps make it up, working with the ICP-MS is something you should consider. As an undergraduate liberal arts college, Gustavus offers students endless opportunities because they don’t compete with graduate students for research space or equipment time. The ICP-MS is available for students with a passion for science and investigative discovery of our natural world. Students learn with the help of the machine along with the faculty members who supervise.

The student ICP-MS users all have various specialties and a wide range of majors throughout the sciences, including biology, chemistry, biochemistry, geology, and environmental studies. Even non-majors have opportunities to use the ICP-MS through First Term Seminar (FTS) classes and through science courses for non-majors. The ICP-MS has allowed students to work on a variety of projects including:

  • Identifying metals in sediment cores from area lakes to look at how the input of those metals have changed.
  • Reconstructing ancient ocean chemical composition based on analysis of deposited material.
  • Identifying sources of erosion to bodies of water by examining metal composition in the sediment and comparing it to the fingerprints from soil and riverbank material.
  • Examining metal transport in the environment, particularly in wetlands, but also in soils.

This machine is versatile and is an important part of inter-departmental teaching efforts at Gustavus. It’s also a component of the Gustavus tradition of engaged student-faculty research. The students and faculty all come together in room 211 to discuss and feed their samples into the ICP-MS, a machine that cost about $175,000 and was made possible through a National Science Foundation grant.

Want to meet the students and faculty working with the ICP-MS? Want to see the ICP-MS at work? Watch the video to learn more. Still craving more ICP-MS information? E-mail Jeff Jeremiason, professor of chemistry and environmental studies program director, at