UOA7-02: Development and application of commercial inorganic mass spectrometers and the growth of a UK SME
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Physical Sciences: Atomic, Molecular, Nuclear, Particle and Plasma Physics
Chemical Sciences: Analytical Chemistry
Earth Sciences: Geochemistry
Summary of the impact
Nu Instruments is a successful mass spectrometer company set up in
collaboration with geochemists at the University of Oxford. This joint
effort was initially based around the development of a new kind of mass
spectrometer; the Nu Plasma. Subsequent research in the UoA demonstrated
the capabilities of this instrument for analysis of a large range of
isotope systems, leading to its widespread use in geochemical and
industrial laboratories around the world. Research in the UoA also aided
in creation of new products, further contributing to growth in sales. Nu
Instruments have sold over 150 instruments worldwide since 2008, while
their turnover grew from £5.2M to £14.7M, and their employee numbers more
than doubled to 105.
Isotope geochemistry is based on the study of concentrations of elements
and their isotopes, generally measured using mass spectrometry. Novel mass
spectrometers that enable more accurate isotope measurements, or a new
analytical capability, allow new scientific challenges to be addressed.
Prior to the mid-1990s, most isotopic measurements of non-volatile
elements (i.e. those excluding noble gases, C, N, O and S), were performed
by thermal ionisation mass spectrometry (TIMS). While powerful, this
technique is limited in the range of elements for which it can provide
precise isotope measurements, because of the difficulties of efficient
ionisation of a thermionic source. In the mid-1990s, new mass
spectrometers that combined a plasma source with multiple collectors were
developed. These multi-collector ICP mass spectrometers (MC-ICP-MS)
allowed precise analysis of nearly all non-volatile elements. Recognising
their potential, Professor Keith O'Nions and Dr. Nick Belshaw, at Oxford
University's Department of Earth Sciences, initiated collaboration with a
leading designer of mass spectrometers (Dr Phil Freedman, PAF Consultants
Ltd) to build an improved MC-ICP-MS; the Nu Plasma. This instrument
featured innovations such as the use of fixed-position collectors, making
it more analytically robust, easier to use, and yet cheaper than other
designs. The prototype instrument was delivered to Oxford in 1997.
O'Nions and other University of Oxford researchers subsequently
demonstrated the significant power of the Nu Plasma to the research
community with a number of papers. Some influential examples include:
i. Precise and rapid measurement of Pb isotopes (e.g. Belshaw et al. 1998
): Lead isotopes were an established mainstay of isotope geochemistry.
This research demonstrated that the Nu MC-ICP-MS could rapidly provide
measurements at higher precision than normally possible with TIMS.
ii. Measurement of transition-metal isotopes, including Fe isotopes (e.g.
Belshaw et al. 2000 , Zhu et al. 2000 ): Isotope measurement of
these metals had been extremely challenging but was of major interest to
geochemists given the importance of these elements for earth and life
processes. This research demonstrated the success of the Nu MC-ICP-MS for
such measurement, and provided the first concrete indication of the huge
potential of these isotope systems for the earth sciences.
iii. Measurement of Ca isotopes (e.g. Halicz et al. 1999 ): This
research demonstrated the potential of the Nu MC-ICP-MS for analysis of
lighter elements and, in a series of subsequent papers, the utility of Ca
isotopes to investigate oceanographic and carbon cycle processes. Work in
the UoA also demonstrated the power of Nu MC-ICP-MS analysis of Li and Mg
iv. Measurement of U and Th isotopes (e.g. Robinson et al. 2004 ):
This research demonstrated the potential for the Nu MC-ICP-MS to improve
on TIMS for Th-isotope analysis, and the success of its innovative
multiple ion-counting system. MC-ICP-MS has subsequently replaced TIMS as
the major tool for U-Th geochemistry. The demonstration of successful
measurement of radionuclides also contributed to recognition by the
nuclear industry of the power of the Nu MC-ICP-MS.
Such papers also established the chemical separation methods and mass
spectrometry protocols needed for precise isotopic measurements using the
More recently, University of Oxford researchers have worked with Nu
instruments to improve ICP mass-spectrometry design. For example, Karla
Newman, working at Oxford with Prof. Alex Halliday (and collaborating with
Nu instruments) helped develop prototype high-sensitivity skimmers for the
Nu Plasma instrument and worked on the physics of plasma sources and
extraction (Newman et al. 2009 ). This research has influenced design
of new Nu Instruments products.
Names of the key researchers and positions they held at the
Prof Keith O'Nions, Chair of Mineralogy, 1995 - 2000
Dr Nick Belshaw, Senior Technician, 1995 - present
Prof Gideon Henderson, Prof of Earth Sciences, 1998-present
Prof Alex Halliday, Chair of Geochemistry, 2004-2012
Dr Karla Newman, PDRA, 2006 - 2007.
References to the research
The three asterisked outputs best indicate the quality of the
1. *Belshaw, N. S., Freedman, P. A., O'Nions, R. K., Frank, M.
& Guo, Y. (1998) A new variable dispersion double-focusing plasma mass
spectrometer with performance illustrated for Pb isotopes. International
journal of Mass Spectrometry 181, 51-58.
(161 citations in Scopus)
The first publication describing the Nu Plasma and demonstrating high
precision and sample throughput for the frequently measured lead-isotope
2. Halicz, L., Galy, A., Belshaw, N. S. & O'Nions, R. K. (1999)
High-precision measurement of calcium isotopes in carbonates and related
materials by multiple collector inductively coupled plasma mass
spectrometry (MC-ICP-MS). Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry
14, 1835-1838. DOI: 10.1039/a906422b (70 citations in Scopus)
3. *Belshaw, N. S., Zhu, X. K., Guo, Y. & O'Nions, R. K. (2000) High
precision measurement of iron isotopes by plasma source mass spectrometry.
International journal of Mass Spectrometry 197, 191-195. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1387380699002456
(98 citations in Scopus)
Demonstrating the power of MC-ICP-MS for analysis of iron isotopes —
now a widely used application in the geosciences and elsewhere.
4. Zhu, X. K., O'Nions, R. K., Guo, Y., Belshaw, N. S. & Rickard, D.
(2000) Determination of natural Cu-isotope variation by plasma-source mass
spectrometry: Implications for use as geochemical tracers. Chemical
Geology 163, 139-149. DOI: 10.1016/S0009-2541(99)00076-5 (121
citations in Scopus)
5. Robinson, L. F., Belshaw, N. S., and Henderson, G. M., 2004. U and Th
concentrations and isotope ratios in modern carbonates and waters from the
Bahamas. Geochimica and Cosmochimica Acta 68, 1777-1789.
(80 citations in Scopus)
6. *Newman K., Freedman P.A., Williams J., Belshaw N.S. and Halliday
A.N., (2009). High sensitivity skimmers and non-linear mass dependent
fractionation in ICP-MS. Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry
24, 742-751 DOI:10.1039/b819065h.
(30 citations in Scopus)
An example of ongoing research to refine the design and use of the
MC-ICP-MS, investigating non-mass-dependent effects during plasma
ionization for the first time.
Details of the impact
The research and collaboration undertaken by the O'Nions group at Oxford
led to the development of a new generation of MC-ICP-MS and of other mass
spectrometers. The resulting new UK company, Nu Instruments  saw
significant growth and sales between 2008 and 2013.
The initial collaborative venture with PAF Consultants was driven by the
research requirements of the O'Nions group at Oxford. The need for an
instrument that could simultaneously measure isotopes of many different
elements quickly and accurately resulted directly in the prototype Nu
Plasma machine, which was co-designed and built by the two organisations.
To quote the founder and director of Nu Instruments, "Without Oxford,
Nu Instruments wouldn't exist." .
The 1997 Nu Plasma instrument had a number of completely new features
which made it attractive to those needing high-functioning mass
spectrometers in academia and industry. It was the first MC-ICP-MS that
was fully double focusing with a Nier-Johnson geometry and a laminated
magnet, and included the use of ion pumps. Critically, it made use of zoom
optics, allowing the deployment of fixed-position collectors and switching
between different elements instantaneously. These design innovations,
coupled to proof of the instruments capabilities provided by Oxford
University research, allowed Nu Instruments to flourish so that, by the
beginning of the REF impact period, they had a turnover of £5.2M .
The design of the Nu Plasma was updated in 2007, to include modifications
that had arisen from discussion between Oxford University and Nu
researchers. For example, this generation of instrument featured
adjustable slits, allowing higher resolution measurement and the more
accurate analysis of some important stable isotope systems such as Fe, Ca,
and Si. These design improvements led to a marked increase in sales of the
Nu Plasma, from an average of 6 per year in the previous five years to an
average of 9 per year in the period 2008-2012 .
The Nu Plasma remains a major-selling product for Nu instruments and has
contributed to the continued success of the company since 2008. High sales
are aided by the demonstration, by Oxford University scientists, of the
successful research application of the instrument to a wide range of
isotope systems. This research also helped Nu Instruments sell the Nu
Plasma into new analytical markets beyond geochemistry (for example, the
nuclear industry; ).
Nu Instruments subsequently developed four further mass spectrometer
designs, two with the active involvement of Oxford University scientists.
The Astrum is a new glow-discharge mass spectrometer developed using the
expertise of Karla Newman, who initially worked for Oxford University's
Department of Earth Sciences and collaborated in several research areas
with Nu Instruments. In October 2007 she transferred to Nu to work on the
Astrum instrument, the first of which was shipped in 2010. This instrument
has enabled Nu to enter a new customer base in industrial materials
characterisation . Nu Instruments have thus benefited by drawing on the
highly-specialised research and development skills of staff from Oxford
University. Oxford University staff (Belshaw) also contributed to software
development for the AttoM instrument, launched in 2005 and sold to more
than 24 customers in academia and industry during the REF period .
Belshaw now provides consultancy services to the company on software and
product design .
Between 2008 and 2012 Nu Instruments sold a total of 157 instruments
around the world (including Europe, Australasia, China and the USA).
Oxford University contributed to the development of 55% of these. Nu has
grown significantly since 2008 and has a thriving company base in Wrexham,
North Wales, as well as being serviced by offices in five countries. Its
turnover has nearly trebled from £5.2 million in 2008 to £14.7 million in
2012, and it has more than doubled its number of employees from 45 in 2008
to 105 in 2013. The success of the company, and its importance to the
local economy, was recognized by the local MP, who selected Nu Instruments
as the best company to represent manufacturing innovation within their
Aside from commercial success, the development of their products has
revolutionized inorganic mass spectrometry and enabled new discovery in a
wide range of academic and commercial disciplines. Nu Instruments has
become an internationally leading mass spectrometry company, having
started through collaboration with Oxford University, and now continuing
to benefit from research undertaken at Oxford University.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Nu Instruments: http://www.nu-ins.com/index.php/about-us
Verifies company start date and instruments on sale.
- Nu Instruments Director.
Letter on file outlining history of involvement with Oxford researchers,
and quoted above.
- Nu Annual instrument sales figures, including those to the nuclear and
materials industries, plus annual turnover. Statement on file from
Administration Manager, Nu Instruments.
- Oxford University Research Associate can confirm consultancy
arrangements on request.
- Nu Instruments press release March 2012: Made by Britain: The
Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group (APMG) requested each Member
of Parliament to select a company that they felt best represented
manufacturing innovation within their constituency. The Member of
Parliament for Wrexham, Ian Lucas MP, selected Nu Instruments. See