When the Deep Carbon Observatory launched in 2009 it recognized the importance of investing early in new instrumentation vital to achieving its decadal goals. A key goal of the Deep Energy Community is to achieve a deeper understanding of methane formation temperatures and sources. DCO therefore co-sponsored the production of Panorama, the world’s largest gas-source multiple-collector mass spectrometer.
Panorama was installed at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), USA, in March 2015. Since its installation, the instrument has been extensively tested, and already contributed to high profile publications . An in-depth article covering the many capabilities of the instrument appears in the 25 April 2016 edition of the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry, and is featured on the journal’s cover . DCO’s Edward Young (UCLA and DCO Deep Energy co-Chair) and Douglas Rumble (Carnegie Institution for Science, USA) co-authored the article with instrument builders Philip Freedman and Mark Mills (Nu Instruments, UK).
The Panorama mass spectrometer was specifically designed to address the technical problems associated with measuring molecular species of almost identical molecular weight. This is particularly important for scientists studying the origins of methane, since the incorporation of rare isotopes into this molecule informs how it was created. Methane, made of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, can incorporate rare isotopes of both elements, including 13C and 2H (deuterium, D). Methane molecules that are doubly substituted for these rare isotopes (13CH3D and 12CD2H2) are even rarer, but are more common in samples of methane gas that formed at lower temperatures. Thus, these doubly substituted, or “clumped,” isotopologues can function as a geothermometer for methane formation, as well as provide insights into kinetics, mixing, and bond-ordering.
“The bulk chemical composition of DNA does not reveal the vast majority of information that is contained in the sequence of base pairs. Likewise, the bulk isotopic composition of many natural compounds does not reveal a potentially rich body of information that may be contained in their isotopic bond ordering,” said DCO Director Craig Schiffries (Carnegie Institution for Science, USA). “Advances in instrumentation are making it possible to make unprecedented measurements of clumped isotopes that may provide a rich source of information about the formation temperatures, sources, and provenance of natural compounds."
Early indications from experiments conducted with Panorama suggest that it routinely operates with a mass resolving power of 40,000, and has a maximum mass resolving power of 80,000. Such resolving power will allow scientists to break new grounds in terms of investigating kinetic reaction pathways and isotope fractionation during transport and mixing.
Funding for the Panorama mass spectrometer came from DCO, the US National Science Foundation’s EAR Instrumentation and Facilities Program, the Department of Energy Office of Science, UCLA, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and Shell Projects and Technologies, Emerging Technologies Group. The authors also thank Dr. Issaku Kohl, lab manager and research scientist at UCLA, and Dr. Shuning Li, post-doctoral scientist at UCLA, both of whom have made indispensable contributions to Panorama.
Next generation instrument Panorama developed by a team of researchers at UCLA (in collaboration with Nu Instruments) addresses methane formation temperatures and sources. Credit: UCLA/Nu Instruments
DCO is simultaneously pursuing two radically different approaches for measuring clumped isotopologues of methane: mass spectrometry and absorption spectroscopy. These approaches are based on different physical principles and each approach has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Read more about these instruments and the data they will produce, which will enable researchers to test hypotheses about biotic versus abiotic origins of methane and achieve other DCO decadal goals, in this Deeper View essay by DCO Director Craig Schiffries.