Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research
Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences,
The University of British Columbia

Multi-Collector ICP-MS

Nu Plasma 1700 | Nu Plasma II | Nu Plasma

MC-ICP-MS instruments combine a plasma source capable of ionizing most of the elements in the periodic table with a mass spectrometer capable of producing the flat-top peaks necessary for precise isotope ratio measurements.

These instruments have provided new and/or improved analytical opportunities for measuring radioactive, radiogenic and stable isotope ratios of elements ranging from Li to U. PCIGR houses three MC-ICP-MS by Nu Instruments. 

PCIGR actively monitors the performance of these high-precision instruments through the analyses of standards (e.g., SRM 981, JMC-475, La Jolla or JNdi) and reference materials (USGS and others). To review our on-going monitoring efforts and performance over the years, please visit the Isotopic Analysis page.


Nu Plasma 1700

The Nu Plasma 1700 is a double-focusing MC-ICP-MS with a large geometry/mass dispersion and unique collector slit design. The collector array consists of a fixed core of 10 Faraday detectors, 6 movable detectors with 3 on each mass side, and 3 ion-counting multipliers interspersed on the low mass side.

The high-resolution feature comprises a continuously adjustable source slit, alpha/beta slits before the electric sector analyzer (ESA), and slits adjustable in width and central position before each collector that allows independent variable resolutions on each collector. With these features, our Nu Plasma 1700 can provide resolutions of >5,000 (10% valley) while maintaining fully separated flat-top peaks for highly precise and accurate measurements and minimal loss in sensitivity.

Other key features: 1) Enhanced variable zoom optics for maximum flexibility; 2) High abundance deceleration filters available for each ion counting detector; 3) Compact torch box design with an externally mounted sample introduction system; 4) Enhanced pumping configuration to provide maximum protection of vacuum integrity and pump life time; 5) State-of-the-art electronics and software. Analyses are performed in dry or wet plasma mode with DSN-100 or Aridus II desolvating nebulizer systems, respectively. Long runs are possible with an ASX-100 Cetac autosampler to minimize downtime.

Our Nu 1700 was installed in PCIGR’s nUBC lab in July 2013. The instrument has been used routinely for radiogenic isotope measurement (e.g., Pb, Hf and Nd) with very high precision and accuracy. Stable and reliable results are also achieved in challenging isotopic systems such as Fe and Si that require high resolution. For example, measurements of the small fractionation of Fe isotopes in igneous rocks are regularly performed with an average two-standard-deviation (2σ) for δ56Fe of just 0.04‰ (n = 3–7; standard-sample bracketing). Isobaric interferences of 40Ar14N+ on 54Fe, 40Ar16O+ on 56Fe, and 40Ar16O1H+ on 57Fe are fully resolved.

This opens avenues for new isotopic tracer studies and collaborative interdisciplinary research, and marks a significant addition to PCIGR’s analytical capacity.


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Nu Plasma II (#214)

The Nu Plasma II is an evolution of the Nu Plasma and Nu Plasma HR. It is a double-focusing magnetic sector instrument that is fitted with 16 Faraday detectors and 5 full-size ion-counting multipliers that allows multiple isotope systems to be studied. The zoom optics system has been upgraded and greatly shortens response time to enable instant changes in dispersion and peak coincidence.

Additional changes to the Plasma II include enhancements to the electronics, pumping system and software, as well as a more compact torch box design and an externally mounted sample introduction system. As for sample introduction, our Nu Plasma II is equipped with both a direct solution aspiration system and a DSN-100 desolvating nebulizer system, the latter of which increases sensitivity by 5–10 times, depending on the elements, and decreases oxide formation.

In addition to these general design improvements, our Nu Plasma II is also equipped with high-sensitivity cones that increase overall sensitivity without compromising isotope ratio accuracy and precision. The cones work with both DSN-100 or Aridus II desolvating nebulizer systems. This set-up has gone through extensive testing with elemental standards and real-life samples, and is now regularly used for radiogenic isotopic analyses of low-concentration samples. Ideal results (i.e., without loss of reproducibility) can be achieved with analyte quantities of 10, 20 and 25 ng for Pb, Hf and Nd, respectively, for isotope ratio measurement.

Although mainly used for radiogenic isotopic measurements in unit mass resolution, our Nu Plasma II is also capable of pseudo-high-resolution measurements when mass interferences are on the same side of the peak. This is achieved by reducing the width of the source-defining slit using a selectable slit mechanism and then reducing the width of the alpha slit located before the ESA to enhance the peak shape by reducing any image aberration.

plasma on

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Nu Plasma (#021)

The Nu Plasma fulfills multiple roles: it is used to analyze a wide range of radiogenic (Nd, Hf, Pb) and stable (Li, Fe, Cu, Zn, Mo, Cd) isotopes, and serves as both a research tool and an educational resource. The Nu Plasma is equipped with a plasma source capable of ionizing most elements. An electrostatic analyzer, a 25-cm radius magnet, and two zoom lens stacks are used to focus the ion beam into a fixed array of 12 Faraday cups and 3 ion-counting multipliers.

Initial instrument sensitivity was improved in 2003 by the addition of an 80-L primary pump that significantly improves pumping at the interface. Sensitivity is further enhanced by use of a DSN-100 desolvating nebuliser system along with matching cones to operate in dry plasma conditions. The entrance slit is adjustable and can be used to increase instrument resolution sufficiently to partially resolve isobaric interferences of 40Ar14N+ on 54Fe and 40Ar16O+ on 56Fe and enable measurement of Fe isotope ratios under pseudo-high-resolution conditions.

Depending on the project, samples may be run by the PCIGR team or by visitors after the instrument has been tuned. All students/PDFs however, are trained to operate the instrument independently from fire up to shutdown, to assess instrument performance and to process their own data. In doing so, they gain valuable experience in both instrument techniques and troubleshooting and the ability to make critical evaluations of data quality.

nu plasma 021

Cd isotopes

Cd isotope analyses have been performed on oyster tissues in order to evaluate heavy metal contamination along the North American coast (Shiel et al., 2012), and in products of the smelting and refining processes of metal ores (Shiel et al., 2010). Cd isotope analyses use a standard-sample-bracketing technique. We use the PCIGR-1 in-house standard, which matches the JMC Cd Muenster standard (Wombacher et al., 2003). For δ114/110Cd ratios, internal precision is <1.5ppm and external precision is typically <0.30‰ (Shiel et al., 2012).

Zn isotopes

For Zn isotope analyses, the purified Zn fraction is doped with a well-defined Cu amount for internal standardization and run on the MC-ICP-MS in static mode. Sample runs are bracketed by runs of our in-house standard PCIGR-1 Zn (Shiel et al., 2009). The bracketing standard PCIGR-1 Zn is cross-checked with the PCIGR-2 Zn standard. External precision is typically <0.1‰ (2sd) for δ66/64Zn ratios. During an analytical session, a value of δ66/64Zn = 0.00 ± 0.04‰ was achieved for the standard PCIGR-1 Zn. Analyses of duplicate samples, including separate sample processing with purification, are carried out routinely and have shown to be identical within analytical uncertainties.

Results of Zn isotope analyses of the bracketing in-house standard during a typical analytical session.
Results of Zn isotope analyses of the bracketing in-house standard during a typical analytical session.

Mo isotopes

High–precision Mo isotope ratios are prepared with the double-spike technique where a 100Mo/97Mo double spike is added to the samples prior to MC-ICP-MS analyses. This ensures that any mass-dependent fractionation induced by lab handling and processing can be accounted for.

After adding the spike and removing matrix elements via column chemistry, the Mo isotopes 92Mo, 94Mo, 95Mo, 96Mo, 97Mo, 98Mo, and 100Mo are collected in static mode. For low-level samples, the DSN-100 desolvating nebulizer is used. Blank correction is carried out by on-peak zero measurements in between sample analyses.

Mo isotope ratio values are reported against an in-house Mo standard solution (Mo(UBC)) that has been cross-calibrated to internationally available Mo standards such as NIST SRM 3134. A long-term external precision of 0.05‰ (2sd) was achieved using this method. Details of the method are described in Skierszkan et al. (2015).

Double-spike analyses of the in-house standard Mo(UBC). Long-term variability of 98Mo/95Mo ratios is within 0.05‰ (2sd).
Double-spike analyses of the in-house standard Mo(UBC). Long-term variability of 98Mo/95Mo ratios is within 0.05‰ (2sd).

Li isotopes

Li isotopes are analyzed with the standard-sample-bracketing technique, using the internationally accepted lithium carbonate standard L-SVEC from the National Institute for Standardization and Technology (NIST). Samples are either dissolved or leached and undergo a sample purification method (Jeffcoate et al., 2004), which involves two ion-exchange column steps to provide a pure Li fraction. Care is taken to recover close to 100% of the Li fraction (cf., Harrison et al., 2015 for full description).

Li isotope signals are collected in static mode and reported relative to L-SVEC that is analyzed alternately. Each sample is measured at least three times. During an analytical session that spanned over three days and ~240 analytical runs, we achieved an average 7Li/6Li ratio of 13.95 ± 0.03‰ (2sd) for L-SVEC. For low-level samples, we use a DSN-100 desolvating nebulizer system.

Hf isotopes

We now offer high-precision, in-situ Hf isotope ratios of zircon from detrital and igneous samples on the NWR193UC laser ablation system, coupled with the Nu Plasma MC-ICP-MS, to measure Hf isotope ratios alone or together with U-Pb dating (Thermo Scientific Element 2 HR-ICP-MS) using a split-stream method.

For Hf isotopic analyses, the Nu Plasma instrument is configured for simultaneous collection of Lu, Yb, and Hf masses (masses 171, 173, 175, 176, 177, 178, 179, 180), which allows for Lu and Yb interference corrections on mass 176 and mass-bias exponential corrections. We can set up 12-hour time-resolved-analyses runs for large detrital zircon samples (n>100), with reference materials inserted for every 10 unknowns. A typical spot analysis involves a pre-ablation spot to clean the surface of any contaminants, followed by a 45-second gas blank, and a 30-second ablation.

To assess the accuracy and precision of unknowns, we routinely analyze well-characterized zircon reference materials (Plesovice, Temora2, FC-1, GJ-1). The following plots summarize the analytical results of selected standards measured in each study.

Selected 176Hf/177Hf analyses of zircon reference materials. The error bars on individual analyses correspond to the 2-standard error on the measured isotopic ratio. The mean and 2 standard deviations of each reference material (this study) is represented by the thick circle marker. LA-ICP-MS literature values (navy blue square markers) are labelled with letters (F, S, M, W) that represent the study that the values are referenced from. The values in the parentheses for the mean and LA-ICP-MS reference values are the number of analyses. The light blue diamond markers represent solution literature values. Reference value sources: W: Woodhead and Hergt (2005), M: Morel et al. (2008), S: Slama et al. (2008), F: Fisher et al. (2014).

In addition to Hf isotope analysis of zircon, we also perform Lu-Hf analysis and geochronology via LA-(MC)ICP-MS, which allows for high-precision dating of garnet, an important indicator mineral for crust and mantle processes. At PCIGR, this method is applied to investigate a variety of topics, such as the timing and rates of subduction, the long-term evolution of the cratonic mantle, and the tectonic reconstruction of mountain belts.

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Fisher, C.M., Vervoort, J.D., DuFrane, S.A. 2014. Accurate Hf isotope determinations of complex zircons using the “laser ablation split stream” method. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 15(1): 121-139. doi:10.1002/2013GC004962

Jeffcoate, A.B., Elliott, T., Thomas, A. and Bouman, C. 2004. Precise/small sample size determinations of lithium isotopic compositions of geological reference materials and modern seawater by MC-ICP-MS. Geostandards and Geoanalytical Research, 28: 161–172, doi:10.1111/j.1751-908X.2004.tb01053.x.

Morel, M.L.A., Nebel, O., Nebel-Jacobsen, Y.J., Miller, J.S., Vroon, P.Z. 2008. Hafnium isotope characterization of the GJ-1 zircon reference material by solution and laser-ablation MC-ICPMS. Chemical Geology, 255: 231-235, doi:10.1016/j.chemgeo.2008.06.040

Shiel A.E., Weis D. and Orians K.J. 2010. Evaluation of zinc, cadmium and lead isotope fractionation during smelting and refining. Science of the Total Environment, 408: 2357–2368, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2010.02.016.

Shiel A.E., Weis D. and Orians K. 2012. Tracing cadmium, zinc and lead pollution in bivalves from the coasts of western Canada and the USA using isotopes. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 76: 175-190, doi:10.1016/j.gca.2011.10.005.

Sláma, J., Košler, J., Condon, D.J., Crowley, J.L., Gerdes, A., Hanchar, J.M., Horstwood, M.S.A., Morris, G.A., Nasdala, L., Norberg, N., Schaltegger, U., Schoene, B., Tubrett, M.N., Whitehouse, M.J. 2007. Plešovice zircon – A new natural reference material for U–Pb and Hf isotopic microanalysis. Chemical Geology, 249: 1-35, doi:10.1016/j.chemgeo.2007.11.005.

Wombacher, F., Rehkämper, M., Mezger, K. and Münker, C. 2003. Stable isotope compositions of cadmium in geological materials and meteorites determined by multiple-collector ICPMS. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 67: 4639-4654. doi:10.1016/S0016-7037(03)00389-2.

Woodhead, J.D., Hergt, J.M. 2005. A preliminary appraisal of seven natural zircon reference materials for in situ Hf isotope determination. Geostandards and Geoanalytical Research, 29(2): 183-195. doi:10.1111/j.1751-908X.2005.tb00891.x.