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Fossils under a new light

Novel fluorescence imaging and analysis of fossils

Scientists are looking for students to be part of a groundbreaking physics project to develop a brand-new type of fossil analysis.

Fossil front visible image Georgios Tsiminis

Fossils have always captured the interest of both scientists and the general public, owning as much to their visual representation of past geological times as to the information they contain.

Most research to date has revolved around simple imaging of fossils in the visible spectrum, with some additional work on the ultraviolet-induced fluorescence of certain fossil samples in the same part of the spectrum.

Recent developments and discoveries in the Near-infrared (NIR) spectrum, from 900 to 1,700 nm, a range outside the commonly used silicon detectors, have begun to unveil additional information about natural mineral species that was previously unexplored.

Through working with the mining industry, we have observed that small amounts of additional elements within a crystal matrix can create new emission bands to what minerals have been reported to emit light in. 

Could the same principle open up a new field in fossil analysis? When fossils are formed, minerals from the surrounding matrix take over from the organic matter, in the process enclosing minuscule amounts of additional elements that change the composition and the crystal structure of the fossil in comparison to its surroundings.

Are there hidden details and additional information in the parts of the optical spectrum beyond what our eyes can perceive waiting to be discovered?

This project, based at the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum, aims to utilise the cutting-edge laser and optics facility at the Novel Fluorescence Laboratory of the Prescott Environmental Luminescence Laboratory (PELL) to generate laser-induced fluorescence from a wide variety of fossils and both image it using NIR cameras and analyse it through cooled infrared spectrometers.

The PELL has a collection of laser sources that span the optical spectrum, from deep ultraviolet to mid-infrared, and a wide array of detectors and cameras that comprise a facility unique across research institutes globally. Existing research activities have shown useful optical signatures from numerous natural minerals, and work in this field is ongoing within PELL that covers the entire range from fundamental material physics to industry prototype development. 

A successful candidate would be someone with experience in either optics or physics, as the combined expertise of the support team will ensure we bring you up to the level of expertise required to successfully complete the project. You will be working with members of this team and have support provided by IPAS and the PELL.

In addition, support and samples from the SA Museum - ranging in age from half-a-billion to some tens of thousands of years old - will ensure a wide range of candidate samples and a good understanding of the underlying composition and history of each sample.

The presence of unique signatures from minerals under these conditions would represent a ground-breaking discovery and could create a brand-new field of fossil analysis. You could be setting the foundations of a new analytical tool with practical applications and widespread impact. Are you ready to shine a new light on fossils with us?

Tagged in Honours projects - Physics, Honours projects - Geology, Honours projects - Ecology and environmental science, Honours projects - Environmental geoscience, Honours projects - Evolution and palaeobiology, Honours projects - Molecular and biomedical science: Other, Honours in Physics subtheme - Luminescence, Honours in Physics subtheme - Optics lasers and photonics, Honours projects - Georgios Tsiminis, Honours projects - Liz Reed, Honours projects - Diego García-Bellido, Honours Projects - Nigel Spooner

Competition: Young Scientist of the Year

How do we feed the world’s growing population? How do we save our wildlife from extinction? Got an idea that will build a brighter, greener world?

Australian high school students are invited to submit a short video about one of Australia’s big science challenges.

Video competition