Stellenbosch University leads way in geosciences




Stellenbosch University is the first such institution in Africa to put money into state-of-the-art technology to ascertain the chronological age of rocks, symbolising a significant progression for geosciences in the country.

The ultra-modern Thermo Element 2 HR-SF-ICP-MS unit has only been working for approximately three months, however it is undoubtedly contributing fantastic value to the work of South African geologists.

“It is exciting technology and contains several strategic, commercial and scientific applications,” says Prof Dirk Frei, head of the ICP-MS Facility at Stellenbosch University (SU).

Frei claims it is the only unit of this type being used for highly precise geochronology in Africa. In other places around the world, you will discover only a handful of comparable units that are utilized to carry out geochronological research in the academic sphere.

Geochronology is a branch of geology utilized to ascertain the age of rocks, fossils and sediments.


Prof Dirk Frei handling zircon samples

It is actually utilized to determine the absolute ages of the crystallisation of magmatic rocks which includes granites, the formation of mountain belts including the Alps, as well as the formation of mineral deposits such as diamond-bearing kimberlites and gold-bearing alluvial placer deposits.


Added benefits for SA geologists

“One of the primary incentives of the facility is to provide the South African geosciences community with dependable age dating technology for the rocks they are studying, rather than making use of rock facilities abroad at a major cost,” Frei says.

The price of utilizing rock dating facilities in a country such as Australia is at least 3 times higher as compared with South Africa.

Obtaining the technology in South Africa is a significant benefit for local geologists employed in industry and the academic field, given that they will no longer have to travel abroad to do geochronological research.


CAF director Prof Gary Stevens and Prof Dirk Frei

“Given the spectacular geology of South Africa together with the mineral wealth of the country, the database of age information is extremely small,” he says. The explanation for this is that numerous scientists don’t get the means to access rock-dating facilities, however new technology will change this.

South African geologists have consistently utilized a variety of processes to ascertain the age of rocks, fossils and sediments, however, the processes open to them were frequently incredibly slow and expensive. Historically geologists had to depend upon chemical analysis, which is also a highly involved and expensive process.

Geologists are now able to carry out in-depth research and provide answers to questions regarding tectonic evolution as well as the age of the African continent, without the need of leaving the country.

Sample analysis making use of the new equipment is in addition faster and a lot more cost-effective, without compromising on accuracy.


Frei states that the technology handles samples with “incredible sensitivity” to produce highly accurate measurements. Up to 600 age determinations can be achieved per day, each taking less than a minute.

“We spent R4-million (US$526 000) in the new facility, as opposed to the cost for a similar quality analysis would be more, but with a lower sample throughput,” he says.


Commercial applications

The new equipment expands the capability to geochronologically date minerals such as zircon, apatite and monazite.

Zircon is of geological value because it is one of the oldest minerals found on earth, and is put to use extensively to produce all sorts of things from bathroom accessories to containers that can store radioactive materials.

Frei states that the technology will assist geologists figure out the age of gold reefs a great deal more accurately. “If we can have an understanding of how gold reefs have been formed, we can better predict where to locate them and focus on their exploration more accurately,” he says.

In the foreseeable future, the new facility will in addition make it simpler for scientists to study commodities such as platinum, lithium and uranium. “The commercial need for these commodities is set to become more significant in the future. For this reason the centre is also strategically important for the country,” he says.


The facility has additionally generated superb interest among the international scientific community. Frei says about 50% of their work at the centre is from overseas, particularly Europe.

“The new equipment will help us unravel geological processes, and will definitely ensure that a host of highly cited articles are published based on the data,” he says.

Source:, Engela Duvenhage


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