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At the Finland Geosciences Research Laboratory from left: Senior Scientist Hugh O’Brien from GTK, academy postdoctoral researcher Shenghong Yang from University of Oulu and Research Professor Raimo Lahtinen from GTK.

Research benefits everyone

Text: Outi Airaksinen

The Finnish Geosciences Research Laboratory is a place for networking and creating new information and methods for the geo-sector. An increasing amount of research is based on cooperation.

The Finnish Geosciences Research Laboratory (SGL) located in Espoo produces and publishes new research data on a frequent basis.

The laboratory is a joint collaboration of GTK and the universities of Aalto, Helsinki, Oulu, Turku, and Åbo Akademi. For analysing minerals and materials to sub 100 nanometer scale, SGL features a field emission scanning electron microscope (FE-SEM). For detecting ultra-trace element concentrations, the laboratory uses a single collector inductively coupled plasma spectrometry (SC-ICPMS) and for isotope work, a multi-collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (MC-ICPMS). Both are equipped with Excimer lasers.

– Now we can do a lot of measurements that were not possible in Finland earlier. We can analyze lower concentrations of elements in minerals, create isotope profiles for them and with the right minerals, determine their age. The most important fact is that we can do this work in situ, directly on the sample, so we know exactly the relationships of the minerals we are analyzing” says the isotope group head, Senior Scientist Hugh O’Brien.

In addition to solid samples, also liquids can be analysed in the laboratory. Analysing water samples from rivers using the ultra-trace capability of the laboratory, for example, could identify an anomaly that might ultimately lead to the discovery of an ore deposit.

Method development  is important

Nowadays, cooperation is more of a rule than an exception in research, where analytical instrumentation is expensive and budgets are tight.

– The only alternatives are to increase cooperation or stop doing cutting-edge research. For us, cooperation is the only possible option, Hugh O´Brien says.

Third parties can also reserve SGL’s  equipment for their own use for a fee by using the public calendar on the laboratory’s website. The laboratory’s reputation has grown through a network of users, and customers from China, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and the United States have used the facilities for their own research.

The University of Helsinki uses the equipment for both research projects and conducting studies for students’ theses.

– It is very important for us to create interaction between researchers through the laboratory, which also allows us to develop our methods. In the future, we must work together on spearhead projects and on method development, says Tapani Rämö, Professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Helsinki.

Joint use of equipment can also give birth to new innovations when personnel and students of different organisations meet each other in a natural setting.

According to Hugh O’Brien, there is no need to acquire new laboratory equipment in the near future. However, one goal is to upgrade the measurement capabilities of the MC-ICPMS acquired in 2008. “It is a relatively small investment, but an important one. It would allow us to make measurements that are as much as 50 times more sensitive than today,” O’Brien explains.

A wide perspective of the research subject

GTK has an extensive network and works in cooperation with many organisations in various fi elds. In the fi eld of marine research, for example, GTK is a member of a consortium that, in addition to marine geology, studies marine biology among other subjects. The Finnish Marine Research Infrastructure (FINMARI) network, founded in 2013, includes four research institutions, three universities and Arctia Shipping Ltd, which is owned by the Finnish government.

GTK also participates in the RAMI (Raw MatTERS Finland Infrastructure) project in cooperation with VTT and Aalto University. The organisations participating in the project are planning to acquire microtomography equipment next year. It will allow us to analyse the structure and strength properties of substances without physically breaking them. The purpose of the project is to combine research from across the entire raw material chain and become a global leader in the field.

– In circular economy, better understanding of both primary and recycled raw materials is needed in order to utilise the materials in the most cost-effi cient and environmentally friendly way. We must participate in creating a Finnish solution for the circular economy of geological materials, says Research Professor Raimo Lahtinen from GTK.

GTK has also participated in coordination of large EU projects that have increased the visibility of GTK’s expertise – not to mention new requests for partnership in many international research projects. For example, GTK is one of the 120 members of the EIT Raw Materials consortium, which consists of research institutions, companies and universities from all over Europe.

Cooperation and networking are necessary not only from the point of view of costs, but also competence. In Finland GTK is at the centre of the field of geology and can act as a hub with which universities can cooperate.

– At the national level, it is very important that we create competence clusters and innovation ecosystems that are strong enough and reach the high standard required to keep up with international competition, Lahtinen says.

Cooperation also in education

Cooperation benefi ts everyone. Universities benefi t when students get funding and have the opportunity to work in real environments in the research institutions. GTK’s specialists, on the other hand, regularly travel to diff erent places to develop their competence or to participate in diff erent research projects.

The national economy also benefi ts when the best specialists work together and research can be targeted in an optimal way. – We try to apply for funding for projects and, in the future, we also plan to develop more joint research projects with universities, Lahtinen says.

In addition to joint research projects, GTK participates in thesis projects of universities, which have traditionally used a lot of GTK’s facilities. GTK and the University of Helsinki have also had extensive cooperation in the fi eld of education.

– Many of GTK’s experts are docents who teach specifi c courses in their own field of expertise. These experts also often supervise theses. An important portion of our Master’s theses is related to collaboration with the GTK, Tapani Rämö says.

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In the future, we must work together on spearhead projects and on method development, says Tapani Rämö, Professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Helsinki.