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Australia’s leading role in groundwater research

groundwater research at the ATTA facility near adelaide
Researcher Dr Rohan Glover, with theAtom Trap Trace Analysis (ATTA) facility at The University of Adelaide

The first Atom Trap Trace Analysis facility in the Southern Hemisphere for measuring the age and origin of groundwater and Antarctic ice cores has launched in Adelaide, South Australia.

When combined with the existing complementary Noble Gas Facility in Adelaide, the two facilities give Australia one of the most comprehensive noble gas analysis capabilities in the world. A project is using the facility in groundwater research.

A collaboration between CSIRO and the University of Adelaide, the Atom Trap Trace Analysis (ATTA) facility uses advanced laser physics to count individual atoms of noble gases, such as Argon and Krypton, that are naturally found in groundwater and ice cores.

Measuring the ultra-low concentrations of these radioactive noble gases allows researchers to understand the age, origin and interconnectivity of the groundwater and how it has moved underground through space and time.

The ATTA facility is located within the University of Adelaide’s main city campus. The CSIRO’s Noble Gas Facility, which became fully operational earlier this year, is located at the Waite campus about 8km south of the Adelaide CBD.

The Noble Gas Facility is also the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and one of fewer than a dozen comparable facilities worldwide.

The two facilities are complementary as they test for different isotopes to broaden climate research on fossil groundwater.


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ATTA’s analytic capability will also allow researchers to test Antarctic ice core samples to further understand global environmental change.

Australia is a very old and flat land mass and is the driest inhabited continent on Earth. This makes groundwater resources of vital importance.

The Great Artesian Basin in central Australia is the largest aquifer of its kind in the world, covering 22 per cent of Australia, and containing water that is more than a million years old.

Professor Andre Luiten is Director of the University of Adelaide’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, which houses the ATTA facility.

He said Australia relies on its groundwater for 30 per cent of its water supply for human consumption, stock watering, irrigation and mining.

“With climate change and periods of prolonged drought, surface water is becoming increasingly more unreliable and the use of groundwater is rising – we need to make sure it’s sustainable,” Professor Luiten said.

“Because noble gases don’t easily react chemically, they are the gold standard for environmental tracers to track groundwater movements. Before this new facility, researchers wanting to measure these ultra-low concentrations of noble gases had to rely on a very small number of overseas laboratories which can’t meet demand for their services.”

Unlike other environmental tracers, noble gases don’t react chemically, have a unique signature and can be used to track extremely slow-moving water.

CSIRO Senior Principal Research Scientist Dr Dirk Mallants said the new ATTA facility would allow researchers to determine how old groundwater is from decades and centuries up to one million years.

“This allows us to understand the sources of water, where it comes from and what the recharge rates are,” he said.

“That then allows us to make decisions about sustainable extraction. This is critical where development of any kind might use or impact groundwater systems – from urban development where groundwater systems are used to supply communities, to agricultural and mining development.

“It will provide Australian researchers, government and industry with unique capability of collaboration on national water challenges.”

The new ATTA facility is partially funded under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme.

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