Wits University officially opens the doors of its new R6-million ultraclean Wits Isotope Geoscience Laboratory (WIGL)

THE NEW R6-million ultraclean and metal-free Wits Isotope Geoscience Laboratory (WIGL) in the School of Geosciences, had its official opening on April 12, 2017.

The facility is a research and training concentrated laboratory, designed to measure and separate any earth material like water or a fossil, and test the element of interest to make a precise measurement. This is achieved through the wide range of element separation procedures being setup. The lab is the only one of its kind in the whole of Africa and one of the cleanest labs in the world because of the quality of the air filtering processes in place, which can be reduced to a little as 5 particles per cubic foot where as an average room has 1 million particles per cubic foot.  The decrease in particles per cubic foot significantly decreases contamination for more accurate results to be achieved.

The director of WIGL, Dr Grant Bybee, who was the instigator, designer and planner of the lab said, “The lab will be beneficial particularly for post-grad students. The students will train and learn procedures that they wouldn’t have learnt otherwise. They will learn world class skills and a new set of skills they will take and apply into the industry, which is important. It will also allow scientists to advance their knowledge and help lecturers and academics in the way we teach and what we teach. Also now you don’t have to only send samples overseas, since it’s a lengthy sample processing and expensive separation.”

The lab was completely funded by Wits Geoscience Faculty of Science and took a year to complete. “The head of school had been saving money,” said Bybee.

Wits is working in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Geology Department because of its R11- million mass spectrometer machine which measures precisely the isotope composition. “The collaboration is great and important. Both universities feed off each other,” said Bybee.

The Dean of the faculty of Science, Prof Helder Marques said, “the new lab is part of the university’s  forward direction 2022 vision to be a research intensive university, with the aim to have 50% post-graduate students. The lab was on the faculty’s wishlist for the past 10 years. There is a lot investment going into infrastructure, especially important in the lab based schools, which previously had small, old and inadequate infrastructure. The lab is also important for many disciplines like the sciences, archaeology, etc.  No longer have to waste time sitting around waiting for results.”

Isotape Geosciences lab has opened up advance scientific research. Photo: Nomvelo Chalumbira

Isotape Geosciences lab has opened up advance scientific research.
Photo: Nomvelo Chalumbira

Kimberly Beaton, a geoscience master’s student, will start using the lab towards the end of the year once all her samples and preliminary analyses are done said, “My Master’s dissertation is about constraining the ages of the metamorphic events on the Kaapvaal Craton. [The] use of the lab in my dissertation will be invaluable because I need to separate out individual elements that have extremely low concentrations. Because of the low concentrations of the elements in the mineral that I am looking at, a very clean environment is needed for the separation. The WIGL supplies this extremely clean environment. I will be using the lab mostly for the separation of the elements out of the mineral.”

“I am looking forward to using a world class state-of-the-art laboratory that is extremely professional based on international standards. Before using the lab, I will be taught about the safety procedures that have been put in place,” said Beaton

Katlego Matlou, a geoscience honour’s student who will start using the lab in July 2017 said, “My Honours Topic is probing the magmatic evolution of three Alaskan mafic intrusions. It’s a petrological and geochemical project. In the lab I will be using isotope dilution & ion exchange chromatography-element separation to measure the concentration of the isotopes that will help in determination of the original magma composition which formed those rocks. I am looking forward into being one of the first students to work in one of the world class lab and also obtaining high precision results.

One of the most important aspects of the lab is its cleanliness and keeping it as clean as possible. All users must put on a protective gear, equipment and remove metal before entering the lab. “The most important procedure that needs to be followed is wearing hazardous material suits (hazmat suits), gloves and shoe covers before entering the main lab so as to achieve the metal-free, ultra-clean and minimize the amount of contamination in the lab, ” said Matlou.



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