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Automated Helium Thermochronology

The Alphachron™ is the first commercially available, automated, integrated and compact turnkey system designed for the extraction and measurement of gases from mineral samples. The Alphachron™ was developed by the CSIRO Division of Exploration and Mining (DEM), and Patterson Instruments, and is now manufactured and marketed by Applied Spectra. The Alphachron™, as a specialist mass spectrometry instrument for geochemists, fits well with Applied Spectra’s product range, expertise and customer base.

During the course of research on the 4D evolution of ore systems, the CSIRO DEM found the need to develop instrumentation for rapid and automated analysis of mineral samples, which became the Alphachron&trade. The Alphachron™ technology, based on an innovative helium extraction/measurement instrument, is being adopted by the market as a standard analytical platform allowing an accurate determination of the thermal history of the Earth’s crust.

Up to 25 mineral samples can be loaded into the laser chamber of the Alphachron™ and heated (approximately 1000°C for apatite, and approximately 1250°C for zircon) under vacuum for five minutes with a 915nm diode laser. The extracted gas samples are analysed to determine their 4He content. The gas extraction process is repeated to ensure all the gas has been removed from the sample and in order to provide each sample with a blank. Mineral standards are analysed in each group of samples. Parent mineral concentration is subsequently determined by ICP-MS analysis of the sample.

Helium Thermochronology Products


The Alphachron™ MkII is a turnkey system for the automated extraction and measurement of radiogenic helium from mineral samples. The instrument integrates a laser-heating module with a gas-handling module and an optional quartz-halogen heating system. The system is delivered prefabricated and is ready to use for measurement after installation and minimal commissioning. After extraction of the helium by laser or quartz-haologen heating, the mineral grains are digested and analysed using standard ICP-MS techniques.

System Features

  • High vacuum system consisting of dry diaphragm fore pump, hybrid turbo pump with controller, and ion pump with controller;
  • Quadropole mass spectrometer (QMS); Range of mass magnitude: 1-100 amu; Detector: Faraday/passage multiplier; Detection limit: < 2×10-11 mbar; Sensitivity of Ar: > 5×10-4/200 A/mbar;
  • SAES getters (2 installed, 1 spare) and getter activation power supply;
  • Stainless steel high-vacuum line with automatic and manual valves;
  • Automated X-Y laser stage with machine vision;
  • 915 nm diode laser, lens system, power supply and safety shield;
  • 3 x 3.3 litre stainless steel tanks with 3He spike, an analytical 4He standard, and a 4He reference standard;
  • 25 sample capacity laser chamber with sapphire window;
  • He diffusion cell option, (maximum operating T = 600°C) and integrated automation software;
  • Dedicated computer system with a Windows computer interfaced to the Alphachron digital I/O system, quadrupole, laser controller, diffusion cell controller (option), CCD camera (or optical pyrometer) and xy controller;
  • Solenoid system and control panel for automatic valve control
  • Alphachron system software/drivers for laser automation, gas handling and measurement of radiogenic helium;
  • Installation and training;
  • Data reduction /alpha correction software routines and spreadsheets;
  • Instrument manuals;

Software Interface

A powerful visual software package based on LabView allows users to create and adjust the operational sequence of the system experiments without any previous programming knowledge. An intuitive interface is included to help users manage experiments using simple textual files. These ‘scripts’ are able to control tightly all aspects of the system’s automated operation. Users can define separate scripts for each of the samples present on the sample disk, allowing multiple tests on varying samples during one automated run, without the need for user intervention, or loading/reloading of samples between tests.

Application Notes

An increase in the number of research institutions around the globe utilizing uranium-helium thermochronometry for applications including mineral and petroleum exploration, geohazards assessment, and continental evolution studies, has prompted demand for a world-first technology developed by CSIRO Exploration & Mining and manufactured by Applied Spectra.

Uranium-helium thermochronometry is a highly sensitive and cost-effective method of radiometric age dating that can be used to determine the thermal history of the Earth’s crust. The major benefit of this technology to the mineral resources industry lies in the ability to quantitatively determine the low temperature thermal histories of mineral belts (see references below) and petroleum basins. This data is fundamental in the exploration for deposits of minerals, as well as oil and gas.


Recent publications demonstrating the application of this technology in ore deposit research include:

McInnes, B.I.A., Evans, N..J., Fu, F.Q. and Garwin, S., 2005. Application of thermochronometry to hydrothermal ore deposits, in Reiners, P. and Ehlers, T. (Eds.), Thermochronology, Reviews in Mineralogy & Geochemistry, Vol. 58, p. 467-498 (ISSN 1529-6466).

McInnes, B.I.A., Evans, N.J., Fu, F.Q., Garwin, S., Belousova, E., Griffin, W.L., Bertens, A., Sukarna, D., Permanadewi, S., Andrew, R.L. and Deckart, K., 2005. Thermal history analysis of selected Chilean, Indonesian and Iranian porphyry Cu-Mo-Au deposits; in Porter, T.M. (Ed.), Super Porphyry Copper & Gold Deposits: A Global Perspective, Vol. 1; PGC Publishing, Adelaide, pp. 27-42.

McInnes, B.I.A., Farley, K.A., Sillitoe, R.H and Kohn, B. 1999. Application of (U-Th)/He dating to the estimation of the sense and amount of vertical fault displacement at the Chuquicamata Mine, Chile, Economic Geology 94, 937-948.

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