Lifer Laboratory

The Liverpool Isotope Facility for Environmental Research (LIFER) was established in 2010 and contains state-of-the-art instrumentation for the analysis of stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen in solid, liquid and gaseous organic and inorganic chemicals. The mine of information stored in these chemicals lead to this branch of stable isotope geochemistry being a valuable tool in geology, oceanography, marine ecology, palaeoceanography and palaeolimnology, archaeology and the life sciences. 

The equipment

We have three stable isotope mass spectrometers

Three Stable isotope ratio mass-spectrometers

Carbonates are dissolved in acid and liberated CO2 is purified and analyzed off line.


The multipurpose instrument is capable of analyzing both solids and gases. Most of our work focuses on organic materials, from bear hair to serpentinized rocks and the determination of the isotopic composition of seawater nitrate.


Thermo Scientific Gas Bench coupled to Delta V Advantage mass spectrometer with Conflo IV gas handling system for measuring the stable isotopic composition of gases.


Costech Instruments Elemental Analyser coupled to Thermo Scientific Delta V Advantage mass spectrometer fitted with Conflo IV gas handling system, for the analysis of sold samples.


For “on-line” compound specific IRMS, organic compounds from complex mixtures are separated by chromatography, then combusted and target gas transferred to the MS. Our applications focus on lipids and amino acids.


Thermo Scientific Trace GC Ultra fitted with Triplus autoinjector, Conflo IV gas handling system, GC Isolink coupled to a Delta V Advantage mass spectrometer, for measuring the stable isotopic composition of individual compounds.

Current and Recent Research Projects

  • The chemical analysis of food residues in archaeological samples such as pottery can provide information on the diets of ancient peoples. In collaboration with the Universities of York, Manchester and Bradford, we have identified the uses of pottery from a variety of locations including Japan and Ghana by determining the stable isotopic composition of lipids, specifically fatty acids (δ13C). (Anu Thompson)
  • Shelf seas are dynamic, highly productive and economically important regions of our oceans. They are thought to be responsible for 15-30% of global primary productivity and thus play an important role in the global carbon cycle. Productivity in the north-west European shelf seas is sustained by the supply of nutrients. However, there remains some uncertainty regarding the source of nutrients, specifically nitrate. Using the distribution of nutrients, the stable nitrogen isotope (δ15N) composition of particles and the δ15N and δ18O isotope composition of nitrate, we will unravel the relative magnitude and importance of physical transport processes and local regeneration in sustaining an on-shelf nitrate pool. (Callum Preece, Claire Mahaffey)
  • Understanding how global and regional climate change influenced the environment of Europe’s oldest lake, Lake Ohrid over the past 135,000 years and deconvoluting these effects from the influence of human beings. We examined the sediment record of the lake used isotope and organic geochemistry to understand changes over time. We showed that climate change influenced the lake catchment and led to periods of soil erosion and/or vegetation development as climate deteriorated (e.g. into an ice age) or ameliorated (during warmer periods). We were also able to link historical (foundation of St Naum Monastery around 905 A.D.) and archaeological (migrations of the Middle Bronze Age) events to the lake sediment record by showing that these were characterised by soil erosion events through marked land use change and agricultural development. (George Wolff)
  • Polychaete worms are some of the most abundant taxa within the Antarctic marine benthos. Many species found there were previously believed to be cosmopolitan or circumpolar. However more recently DNA barcoding has revealed that several species are made up of genetically distinct and biogeographically restricted populations. The project aims to use genetic level species identification to renew our knowledge of Antarctic polychaete diversity and biogeography together with stable isotope analysis of amino acid-N to determine the trophic traits of different species to understand their role in ecosystem function. (Maddie Brasier, Rachel Jeffreys)
  • Evaluating ecological change in the North Sea through compound specific isotope analysis of amino acids. Determining changes in baseline and trophic d15N will allow the assessment of the effects of fishing (both historic and modern) on North Sea Ecosystems. (Rachelle Martyn, Callum Roberts, Ollie Craig at York, with George Wolff)
  • Tracking the effect of climate-forced temporal variation in food supply through a north-east Atlantic abyssal food web, using archived time-series samples. The objectives are to track the influence of temporal variability on food quality, competitive interactions for food sources, the trophic position of key indicator species and to quantify food web flows (from δ15N in amino acids, biomass, density and POM flux). (Rachel Jeffreys)
  • Studies of hydrothermal vents in modern ocean settings suggest that methane produced by serpentinization can support methanotrophic bio-systems. Are such bio-systems localised at hydrothermal vents or are more pervasive, being linked with the geology of serpentinized mantle in the subsurface?  Answering this question will have implications for the global importance of hidden sub-surface bio-systems, the fate of methane and the carbon cycle. Searching for markers of methanotrophy at Ocean-Continental Transitions (ancient and modern) and of the isotopic composition of organic matter is the approach used to find signals of methanotrophy. (Tsvetomila MateevaGeorge Wolff)
  • Horizon 2020 funding programme supports the largest and most ambitious assessment of deep-sea Atlantic ecosystems ever undertaken through the €9 million ATLAS (A trans-Atlantic assessment and deep-sea ecosystem-based spatial management plan for Europe). ATLAS strives to improve our understanding of the complexity of deep-sea ecosystems and to predict future shifts and vulnerabilities of these ecosystems and their associated species, including those that are new to science. To do this requires a multi-disciplinary team of scientists and an integrated approach to tackling the problem. The project is vital in protecting vulnerable oceanic ecosystems. At Liverpool, we will our efforts on cold-water corals, hot spots of biodiversity which are threatened by human activity and ocean acidification. We will be using molecular and isotopic techniques to understand how the coral ecosystems tick. (George Wolff)

If you have questions about using our facilities, please contact Jim Ball at

Recent outputs can be found in the Oceans and Climate publications. Alternatively you can find a full list of publications that are relevant to the research facility.