University Of Cape Town Geology – Stable Isotope Lab

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University Of Cape Town Geology – Stable Isotope Lab

University Of Cape Town Geology – Stable Isotope Lab

Geology, which studies the composition, history, and processes of the Earth, contains important clues for understanding the past and present of the Earth. At the forefront of groundbreaking geological research is the Stable Isotope Laboratory at the University of Cape Town. This state-of-the-art facility enables scientists and researchers to solve geological mysteries using advanced stable isotope analysis. This article reviews the Stable Isotope Laboratory at the University of Cape Town, its state-of-the-art technology, experienced researchers, and the important role it plays in shaping the field of geology.

Stable Isotope Lab
The stable isotope laboratory has a number of extraction lines for the measurement of stable isotope ratios of O, C, and H in rock (silicates and carbonates), mineral, and water samples.

  • A conventional silicate line utilizing ClF3 with 10 nickel reaction vessels for the analysis of O in silicate rocks and minerals
  • A carbonate line for the extraction of CO2 in carbonate rocks and minerals using 100% phosphoric acid. This line is also used to determine oxygen isotope values in water samples
  • A hydrogen line for the analysis of H in rocks and mineral samples and water samples
  • A laser fluorination line for the analysis of 1-2 mg mineral samples using BrF5. Both δ17O and δ18 O are determined on O2 gas absorbed onto molecular sieve in sample bottles.

All samples are collected in glass ‘break-seal’ tubes which are analyzed using a DeltaXP dual inlet gas source mass spectrometer housed in the Department of Archaeology.  Please contact Chris Harris for information on rates for work in the stable isotope laboratory.

Stable Light Isotope Laboratory

The stable (non-radioactive) isotopes of the light elements carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur can all be measured in this stable light isotope laboratory.

These are the fundamental components of biological systems, and naturally occurring differences in their isotope ratios allow us to track actions taking place within those systems, such as who eats who in a food web and how to recreate historic human diets.

We may reconstruct the habitats in which historical humans formerly lived by analyzing archaeological materials like bones, teeth, shells, and plant remains because these isotope ratios also fluctuate depending on the environment.

Early research conducted in this lab in the 1970s produced the first report ever to map the expansion of maize agriculture in eastern North America using stable isotope ratios as a dietary tracer. Today, among other disciplines, this is a significant area of study in archaeology, biology, and ecology.

The Stable Light Isotope Laboratory’s archaeological programs concentrate on studying past dietary patterns and ecosystems in South Africa over extremely long durations. We are also assisting in the development of novel procedures, such as the use of the uncommon isotope oxygen 17.

The Stable Light Isotope Laboratory is a component of the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap’s (SARIR) national Biogeochemistry Research Infrastructure Platform (BIOGRIP), which was created by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). This lab is used by scientists studying life and earth sciences from a variety of fields.


Numerous internal labs and analytical facilities are maintained by the Department of Geological Sciences. Both internal and external (other tertiary institutions and businesses) users can use the facilities for a reasonable price. The following facilities/equipment are located inside the Department:


  • Multi-collector ICP-MS
  • Quadrupole ICP-MS
  • Electron Microprobe
  • X-ray Fluorescence (XRF)
  • X-ray Diffractometer (XRD)
  • Linkam Fluid Inclusion Laboratory
  • Stable isotope Laboratory
  • Geophysics Software Laboratory
  • Sedimentology Laboratory

Laboratories and equipment are supported by staffed, hygienic labs, and sample preparation facilities. The Department also has a room for rock crushing and a thin-section facility.

Additionally, a variety of vehicles owned by the Department of Geological Sciences are used to support fieldwork and research operations at the University. On a first-come, first-served basis, you can hire these. For additional information, get in touch with John Harrison at or 021-650-2909.

For more information on the Stable Isotope Lab, please contact:
Prof. Chris Harris
(021) 650_2921
Room 352


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