Stable carbon and hydrogen isotope fractionation of volatile organic compounds caused by vapor-liquid equilibrium


  • Bouchard Daniel
  • Hӧhener Patrick
  • Gori Didier
  • Hunkeler Daniel
  • Buscheck Tim

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Several types of laboratory experiments were conducted to evaluate isotope fractionation caused by phase transfer process for a selection of common environmental contaminants. Carbon and hydrogen isotope fractionation caused by vaporization of non-aqueous phase liquid (NAPL), by volatilization from water and by dissolution into an organic solvent (tetraethylene glycol dimethylether or TGDE) under equilibrium conditions was investigated with closed system experimental setups to isolate the air-liquid partitioning process. A selection of aromatic, aliphatic and chlorinated compounds along with one fuel oxygenate (methyl tert-butyl ether or MTBE) were evaluated to determine isotope enrichment factor related to respective phase transfer process. During NAPL vaporization, the residual mass of aromatic compounds, aliphatic compounds and MTBE became progressively depleted in heavy carbon and hydrogen isotopes. In contrast, during volatilization from water, the residual mass of aromatic compounds and MTBE dissolved in the water became progressively enriched in heavy hydrogen isotopes, whereas no significant change in carbon isotope was observed, except for MTBE showing a significant depletion. For the air-TGDE partitioning process, most of the aromatic compounds tested led to no significant carbon (except ethylbenzene) or hydrogen (except toluene and o-xylene) isotope fractionation. In contrast, significant carbon isotope fractionation was observed for aliphatic and chlorinated compounds and hydrogen isotope fractionation for aliphatic compounds, and are comparable to progressive NAPL vaporization in direction and magnitude. The isotope fractionation factors determined in this study are key for interpreting the change in isotope ratios when assessing the fate of gas-phase VOCs present in the soil air or when gas-phase VOCs are sampled using TGDE as the sink matrix. The results of this study contribute to expand the list of common environmental contaminants that can be assessed by the compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA) method deployed in the frame of gas-phase studies.

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