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Understanding Our Planet Through Chemistry

The USGS Reference Materials Project

In the field of analytical chemistry, reference materials serve an important role in the development of new techniques and the periodic testing of established methods. Used correctly, reference materials provide investigators with a mechanism to objectively compare their results with established values and determine if any bias exists.

It was this drive to produce quality data that led the USGS and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1950's to jointly develop the first geochemical reference materials. This early work started a USGS tradition of preparing high-quality reference materials that are used for both domestic and international geochemical programs. To date, 29 different geochemical standards have been produced with an estimated worldwide distribution of over 20,000 units.

Photo of USGS reference materials.Samples are dried, crushed, powdered, mixed thoroughly, then bottled and analyzed. Some reference materials are distributed by the USGS in limited quantities directly to researchers and analytical laboratories. Other standards can be prepared on a contract basis for individual government agencies. Geologic analytical laboratories can compare their results to these standards. [173k]

Initially, the need for quality control led to the development of several silicate rock standards that were important in such diverse activities as the lunar program, ore-genesis studies, and volcano monitoring. When the mining and exploration industries clamored for reference materials, the USGS responded by generating six exploration standards designed to contain elevated concentrations of key elements. The USGS involvement with the mining industry continues today with the recent development of coal and gold-ore standards, which will be useful in resource appraisals.

Environmental concerns are becoming a major part of the national agenda, and the USGS Reference Material Project provides quality reference material to aid in this field of study. A major emphasis of this effort will be to conduct cooperative studies with other Federal agencies, thus helping them respond to national needs.

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