Hawai‘i Pacific University Uses Lasers to Investigate Corals and Marine Debris

Hawai‘i Pacific University (HPU) received a nearly $320,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the acquisition of an ultramodern Raman spectrometer that uses complex lasers to analyze coral reefs and marine debris found off Hawai‘i’s waters and beaches. HPU’s Makapu’u campus is an ideal location for ocean research, adjacent to coral reefs and near the epicenter of plastic accumulation found in the Pacific Ocean. HPU’s Raman spectrometer will be the only one of its kind in the state of Hawai‘i.

“This technology will help us understand how Hawaiian corals are affected by climate change,” said principal investigator Thomas DeCarlo, Ph.D., professor of oceanography at HPU. “The lasers are so precise that we will have the capability to generate 100 data points across the width of a human hair. At HPU, we are deeply interested in how the fundamental microscale process of coral growth is affected by climate change. 

“Raman technology will allow us to learn further about how corals grow, how corals respond to ocean acidification and warming, and it will let us better understand the structural properties of polymers found in marine debris.”

Ocean acidification and marine debris are two of the longest-lasting impacts to marine environments. Marine calcifying organisms like coral reefs, mollusks, crustaceans, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers are highly sensitive to ocean acidification; and a wide range of marine species, from fish to whales, are affected by plastics that accumulate in the oceans. 

“HPU’s Center for Marine Debris Research (CMDR) currently has one of three chemical instruments that I call the ‘trifecta’ for microplastic research,” said co-principal investigator Jennifer Lynch, Ph.D., HPU research scientist. “That’s the microscope FT-IR. The second in the trifecta is the pyrolysis-GC/MS, which is currently being procured by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to be installed at HPU’s CMDR by December 2021. 

“With the addition of the Raman spectrometer, HPU will complete the ‘trifecta.’ There are very few labs across the world that focus specifically on plastic pollution. I can count them on one hand. In the US, most researchers in this field must drive or ship their delicate filtered samples to other cities or states for analysis on just one single instrument. HPU’s CMDR is being outfitted to become a global leader in microplastic pollution research.”

Visiting researchers will have access to the Raman spectrometer, and the instrument will be the focal point of new laboratory classes that will substantially improve the training of undergraduate and graduate students at HPU. 

“The Raman spectrometer is one of the best machines in the world to analyze corals and marine debris,” says DeCarlo, “and it’s a great teaching instrument because it is fairly simple to use despite the complex technology behind it. We expect it to be ready for use by spring 2022.”

To learn more about the Department of Natural Sciences at HPU click here

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