Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor's Name

José R. Almirall

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Yong Cai

Third Advisor's Name

Kenneth G. Furton

Fourth Advisor's Name

John Berry

Fifth Advisor's Name

Daniel Wescott


Soil, sediment, elemental analysis, forensic, sample preparation, discrimination, LA-ICP-MS, LIBS, XRF, laser ablation inductively coupled mass spectrometry, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, lithology

Date of Defense



The elemental analysis of soil is useful in forensic and environmental sciences. Methods were developed and optimized for two laser-based multi-element analysis techniques: laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). This work represents the first use of a 266 nm laser for forensic soil analysis by LIBS.

Sample preparation methods were developed and optimized for a variety of sample types, including pellets for large bulk soil specimens (470 mg) and sediment-laden filters (47 mg), and tape-mounting for small transfer evidence specimens (10 mg). Analytical performance for sediment filter pellets and tape-mounted soils was similar to that achieved with bulk pellets.

An inter-laboratory comparison exercise was designed to evaluate the performance of the LA-ICP-MS and LIBS methods, as well as for micro X-ray fluorescence (μXRF), across multiple laboratories. Limits of detection (LODs) were 0.01-23 ppm for LA-ICP-MS, 0.25-574 ppm for LIBS, 16-4400 ppm for µXRF, and well below the levels normally seen in soils. Good intra-laboratory precision (≤ 6 % relative standard deviation (RSD) for LA-ICP-MS; ≤ 8 % for µXRF; ≤ 17 % for LIBS) and inter-laboratory precision (≤ 19 % for LA-ICP-MS; ≤ 25 % for µXRF) were achieved for most elements, which is encouraging for a first inter-laboratory exercise. While LIBS generally has higher LODs and RSDs than LA-ICP-MS, both were capable of generating good quality multi-element data sufficient for discrimination purposes.

Multivariate methods using principal components analysis (PCA) and linear discriminant analysis (LDA) were developed for discriminations of soils from different sources. Specimens from different sites that were indistinguishable by color alone were discriminated by elemental analysis. Correct classification rates of 94.5 % or better were achieved in a simulated forensic discrimination of three similar sites for both LIBS and LA-ICP-MS. Results for tape-mounted specimens were nearly identical to those achieved with pellets.

Methods were tested on soils from USA, Canada and Tanzania. Within-site heterogeneity was site-specific. Elemental differences were greatest for specimens separated by large distances, even within the same lithology. Elemental profiles can be used to discriminate soils from different locations and narrow down locations even when mineralogy is similar.



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