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Laser Spectrometry Development for Isotopic Analysis in Environmental and Medical Applications

   School of Geosciences

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  Dr Tim Arnold, Dr Steven Bell  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


This is a fully-funded PhD opportunity based at NPL (London) that will investigate and establish laser spectrometry for measurement of stable isotope ratios and radiocarbon in carbon dioxide and methane, relevant for environmental monitoring and drug discovery applications.

Please read instructions on how to apply at https://www.ed.ac.uk/geosciences/study/degrees/research-degrees/phd-projects/physical-sciences?item=1397

Project background

EPSRC iCASE PhD studentship in collaboration with the National Physical Laboratory. The student's primary location will be at NPL's Teddington campus in London but linking to research taking place at the University of Edinburgh in the School of GeoSciences. A motivated, independent and enthusiastic candidate is sought for a fully-funded PhD that will investigate the potential towards IR-absorption laser spectrometry for traceability of low-level very high precision measurements of stable isotopes and radiocarbon in carbon dioxide and methane, relevant for environmental monitoring and drug discovery applications. 

Carbon-14 in particular is an ideal radioactive tracer for many processes and this project will culminate in the development of these measurements. (1) As the UK transitions towards ’net zero carbon’, new and improved methods of verifying industrial emissions and atmospheric composition will be required. Atmospheric C-14 measurements allow for the estimation of the fossil-fuel fraction of CO2 and CH4. (2) C-14 as a tracer is vital for the rapid and cost-effective development of drugs, notably for the treatment of cancer. It is used in the early efficacy stage of drug development to understand how the human body will handle the drug in terms of the absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination (ADME).

The candidate will develop the following areas of work:

  • Focussing on current measurement capabilities for δ13C(CH4) and δ2H(CH4) by laser spectroscopy, the current limits to spectrometer precision will be investigated.
  • Knowledge gained on work with δ13C(CH4) and δ2H(CH4) will be transferred to understand what is needed to make high precision measurements of the rarer isotopologue ratios
  • Finally, techniques to introduce samples into a laser spectrometer (preconcentration and interference removal) will be refined to analyse radiocarbon in natural samples.

Supervision will be through a team of scientists at the National Physical Laboratory and the School of GeoSciences: Dr Tim Arnold, and Dr Steven Bell. The student will be based at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington. The student will receive a stipend of £21,000 per annum. 

Research questions

  1. What are the major problems hindering measurement of radiocarbon by laser spectrometry?
  2. What preparation techniques are required for sample processing prior to measurement by laser spectrometry?
  3. Can a laser spectroscopic technique measuring carbon-14 be developed to compete with the precision of current analysis methods?


Year 1: Focussing on current in situ measurements of δ13C(CH4) and δ2H(CH4) made at NPL by laser spectroscopy, the current limits to precision will be investigated. The current Quantum Cascade Tunable Infrared Laser Direct Absorption Spectrometer (QC-TILDAS) at NPL is the most precise instrument available, reaching precisions of 0.04 and 0.5 ‰ for δ13C(CH4) and δ2H(CH4), respectively. Such levels of precision can remain for significant periods of time, however, internal or external disturbances can easily disrupt this performance levels preventing reliability. 

Years 1 and 2: This year will be focussed on developing the measurement of the rarer stable isotopologues in idealised samples

Years 2 and 3: This year will be focussed on refinement of the sample preparation techniques to target high precision and accuracy measurements of atmospheric 14CO2


A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills.


We are looking for a talented and highly motivated candidate holding (or close to completing) a master’s degree (or international equivalent) in Physics, Chemistry, Chemical Physics, or Engineering disciplines. 

Please read more at https://www.ed.ac.uk/geosciences/study/degrees/research-degrees/phd-projects/physical-sciences?item=1397

Funding Notes

Please read the full details at https://www.ed.ac.uk/geosciences/study/degrees/research-degrees/phd-projects/physical-sciences?item=1397


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