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Geochemistry set fair

Three members of the chemistry team (© Bob McIntosh)

Richard A Shaw and Michael J Watts (British Geological Survey) report on the continuing rehabilitation of Afghanistan's geoscience facilities.

Geoscientist 18.11 November 2008

During the recent troubles in Afghanistan, the country's Geological Survey (AGS) suffered considerable damage (Geoscientists passim.). Between 2004 and 2008 The the UK Government (DfID) commissioned the British Geological Survey (BGS) to undertake institutional strengthening of AGS through capacity-building and skills transfer.

One aspect of the project was the rebuilding of the laboratory facilities (Geoscientist 17.6, June 2007), including a geochemical laboratory. It had been over two decades since the AGS had undertaken geochemical work, and that had been carried out as part of a Soviet-run mineral exploration programme with skilled chemists organising the work of technicians. Introduction of modern work practices was crucial, owing to technological advances and changes in work practices over the intervening years.

In the UK, equipment and services of a modern laboratory are taken for granted, but in Afghanistan obtaining even the most basic items and facilities provided us with considerable challenges. The laboratory was a blank canvas containing nothing but work benches. Equipment for a filtered water supply, fume cupboard and chemistry materials had to be shipped to Kabul from the UK, and were assembled in June 2007. Problems with intermittent power supply, dusty conditions and lack of local expertise added to the challenges, and required a pragmatic approach.

Basic equipment was used to assess the knowledge and practical skills of AGS chemists. The laboratory was supplied with a Palintest 7500 spectrophotometer (selected for its rugged design and simple mode of operation) for chemical assays. This, together with a pH meter, laboratory glassware and chemicals, completed the set-up for assaying water samples, with additional equipment for sample dissolution of solid materials.

To enable an initial assessment, we got the team to carry out a series of basic chemical assays, including pH and the spectrophotometric determination of copper, nickel and zinc in water samples. The 15 members of the chemistry team were split into two groups, partly to enable the trainees to attend English and IT courses (also provided by BGS) and partly to make the training more manageable, while also introducing some group competition.

The training included basic health and safety, equipment maintenance (to ensure things went on working after we had left), record keeping, quality assurance and avoidance of sample contamination, and such chemistry basics as units of concentration, pH and absorbance theory. Practical skills taught and assessed included the use of an analytical balance and basic glassware, the collection and preservation of water samples, and the operation of the Palintest spectrophotometer as well as data manipulation using Microsoft Excel.

Practical sessions and theory-based lectures were followed by an assessment of homework questions and weekly exams, with weekly scoring to measure progress. The three highest-scoring trainees then took responsibility for the laboratory in the absence of BGS staff. The trainees were all keen to learn new skills, many displaying a real interest in the practical aspects of laboratory work.

There were some challenges; in particular because, as we soon found, much technical terminology was "lost in translation". Nevertheless, the transformation has been remarkable - from a ruined laboratory with staff who had neither hope nor focus, to a useful, modern (albeit basic) laboratory, with motivated staff intent on learning new skills and modernising old ones.

Managing the installation and assessing staff skills enabled BGS to provide detailed advice in advance of plans from the Afghan Ministry of Mines to invest in further modern geochemical facilities at AGS. Since completing the project in January this year, AGS has begun to take delivery of equipment, including an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. As long as this investment is followed up with long-term training and resourcing, we expect that the geochemistry laboratory will contribute usefully to mineral exploration projects, and so help build a prosperous and stable future for itself, and Afghanistan.