Purchase of the Thermal Ionisation Mass Spectrometer (TIMS), replacing the previous 24-year-old instrument, has enhanced the capability of the James Hutton Institute in the provenancing of materials from the natural environment. The team responsible for the TIMS have increased their capability for analysing smaller samples to a higher quality and over a broader range of isotopes. Operational time for a sample batch changeover has been reduced from 7 hours to 1.5 hours, operated from a remote desk and use of desktop software rather than in situ, and with paper printouts.
The ability of the instrument to measure unique isotope signatures enables differentiation between likely geographic sources of origin of samples. Currently, this a capability is providing evidence that is informing consideration of regulations and policing of food provenancing through direct input to the International Atomic Energy Authority project on Food Authenticity and traceability. The provision of evidence of the provenance of materials is also being pursued for public and private benefits in relation to tackling wildlife crime (e.g. measuring Strontium isotopes in bone and feathers to provenance possible origins of a bird of prey), and fraud in the origins of food (e.g. lemons and tomatoes, with University of Naples).
Testing the capabilities of the instrument has provided opportunities for new collaborations and capacity building through MSc and PhD projects. For example, with the University of Aberdeen, tests have been carried out to show that Ca isotopes could be used to differentiate between sheep fed on either seaweed or grass solely from the islands of Orkney, using measurements from the feedstock and the bones of sheep. Preliminary findings show prospects of differentiating between provenances of crops in Scotland using ratios of bioavailable Strontium in soils, which is also providing evidence of soil movement and marine influences.
The leading edge capabilities of the instrument has been used to promote the Institute as a world-leading research organisation. Opportunities have been created to showcase Institute facilities to visitors from government, NGOs with quasi-public responsibilities, industry, politics, public and visiting (national and international) research teams.