Otago can boast having the cleanest air in New Zealand, but it’s not in the mountains of Central Otago or on the windswept beaches of Dunedin.

It’s found in a new $3 million laboratory at the University of Otago. The research facility, producing filtered air 100,000 times cleaner than the air outside, is the newest addition to the University’s Mellor Laboratory.

The Clean Lab’s high design specifications include the filtered air being renewed at a rate of 100 changes per hour, positively pressured rooms that ensure any residual air moves from the inside to the outside of the labs, and access to high-purity water on-tap for processing samples.

The Clean Lab will play a key role in researching trace metals.

Professor Claudine Stirling, Director of Otago’s Centre for Trace Element Analysis, says the Clean Lab is designed to protect the metals under analysis from both people and the environment.

“Metals participate in all sorts of different processes and they exist everywhere including on us,” Professor Stirling says.

“A lot of metals that provide useful information exist at very low levels, down to parts-per-trillion concentrations or even lower, so it’s crucial to reduce background levels as much as possible.”

Even a speck of dust is loaded with metals so can potentially contaminate a sample being tested.”

Director of Otago’s Centre for Trace Element Analysis Professor Claudine Stirling. Photo: Supplied/University of Otago 

The Clean Lab will support a growing diversity of applications from earth sciences to archaeology, and forensics to climate change.

“Tracking these types of changes provides information about underlying processes for applications as diverse as the origin of the Solar System, heavy metal contamination in the environment, oceanic carbon dioxide uptake, and human migration patterns.”  

However, Professor Stirling says there are also many new areas such as biomedical cancer research and how nutrients are absorbed by the body, which this facility will support.  

Professor Stirling’s own Marsden-funded research on environmental change during periods of global warming will also benefit from the new clean lab.

Her team has recently returned from field research in a Norway fiord known to have the highest global ‘de-oxygenation’ levels of any marine environment.

Through the analysis of trace metals and their isotopes, one of the project’s aims is to reconstruct how ocean de-oxygenation progresses as climate warms.

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