Soil Characterization and Quaternary Pedology Laboratory


The laboratory is equipped with two laser particle size analyzers: A Malvern Mastersizer 3000 and a Micrometrics Saturn Digisizer 5200. The lab is also equipped with an Accumet pH Meter 915, Accumet Excel XL30 Conductivity Meter, Thermolyne 1400 Muffle Furnace, Ro-Tap Sieve Shaker, a tensimeter, and more. Sample prepatory equipment includes a Quantachrome Sieving Riffler, Sampletek 200 Vial Rotator, SPEX 8000 Ball Mill, Gilson Performer III, precision analytical balances, high speed/high capacity centrifuges, shaking tables, large ovens, a microscope, and more.

The lab is also equipped with two chemical fume hoods with facilities for storage and disposal of chemicals. Instruments in other labs that we have access to include a Bruker D8 Advance X-Ray Diffractometer (XRD) and a Dionex ICS 1500 Ion Chromatography System.

Laser Particle Size Analysis

The laser particle size analysis (LPSA) procedure is used to determine the percentage of size-class fractions in soil or sediment samples, as well as water-sediment mixtures. The procedure is based on ASTM-C-1070-01 to determine particle size distribution analysis (PSDA) of alumina and quartz powders by laser light scatter (ASTM, 2000).

Based on the Mie theory of light scattering, laser diffraction measures particle size distributions by measuring the angle and intensity of light scattered as a laser beam passes through a dispersed particulate sample. Large particles scatter light at small angles and small particles scatter light at large angles. The angular scattering intensity data is then analyzed to calculate the size of the particles responsible for creating the scattering pattern, using the Mie theory. The method assumes that all particles are spheres, and the reported size class percentages are volume based.

Samples undergoing laser particle size analysis can be prepared in several ways. The two most commonly used in our lab are:

  1. External dispersion (shaking overnight in a surfactant), followed by wet sieving to remove the entire sand fraction (>62.5 μm) and laser analysis of the fine (silt and clay) fraction only.
  2. Dry sieved to remove the coarse sand particles (>2mm, >1mm, or >0.5mm depending on the project objectives and analyzer being used), and laser analysis of the remaining sample using internal dispersion in the laser analyzer using ultra-sonication.

Method 1 has the advantage of added resolution to the fine end by removing larger sand-sized particles, thereby reducing multiple light scatter. Method 2 has the advantage of having more of an entire sample being analyzed in a single technique. If the entire sample of interest is analyzed by laser diffraction, a mean, mode, and kurtosis of the entire particle size distribution can be determined.

(does not display)

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Malvern Mastersizer 3000
The Mastersizer 3000 is Malvern’s newest instrument that was released in 2011. It produces rapid measurements and is equipped with two different dispersion units, allowing the measurement of both wet and dry samples. It is capable of analyzing samples from 3.5mm to 0.01 μm.
Saturn DigiSizer 5200
The DigiSizer analyzes samples within a liquid medium and is capable of analyzing particles from 0.05 to 1,000 μm. It is equipped with an ultrasonic probe for internal dispersion of samples and an autosampler (MasterTech) that can be set up to run 18 samples automatically.
Tensimeter for Carbonate Content
A tensimeter is used to determine the carbonate content of a sample. The tensimeter measures the pressure created by the production of CO2. CO2 is created when reacting HCL with CaCO3. A set of pure CaCO3 standards can be used to create a calibration curve. The carbonate content of a sample can then be determined based on the weight and pressure of the sample and this calibration curve. (Evangelou et al, 1984; Horvath et al, 2005; Sherrod et al, 2002; Wagner et al, 1998).
Thermolyne 1400 Muffle Furnace for Loss on Ignition
The Thermolyne 1400 Muffle Furnace is used to determine organic matter content. Organic matter content is determined using the loss on ignition method (LOI). The percent weight of organic matter in a soil or sediment sample is measured based on removal of organic matter under high temperature (400° C) for 1 hour (Storer, 1984; Powell, 1989).
Accumet pH Meter 915
The pH of a sample is determined by using the Accumet pH Meter 915. This meter is calibrated prior to each use using pH buffering solutions as well as lab standards with known pH values.
Accumet Excel XL30 Conductivity Meter
Total soluble salts are estimated from electrical conductivity (EC) of aqueous soil extracts. A soil-water extract of 1:5 is used in conjunction with a conductivity bridge to estimate the total amount of soluble salts. The meter is calibrated prior to each use using KCl solutions with known cell constants as well as lab standards with known values.


Eric McDonald, Ph.D.
Lab Director 

Lab email:
Lab phone: 775.673.7430
Contact Form


Desert Research Institute
2215 Raggio Parkway
Reno, NV 89512


Earth & Ecosystem Sciences