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Diffusion related isotopic fractionation effects with one-dimensional advective–dispersive transport

Xu, Bruce S., Lollar, Barbara Sherwood, Passeport, Elodie, Sleep, Brent E.
The Science of the total environment 2016 v.550 pp. 200-208
BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene), advection, carbon, detection limit, diffusivity, ethylene, field experimentation, groundwater, groundwater contamination, isotope fractionation, models, molecular weight, stable isotopes, uncertainty, vinyl chloride
Aqueous phase diffusion-related isotope fractionation (DRIF) for carbon isotopes was investigated for common groundwater contaminants in systems in which transport could be considered to be one-dimensional. This paper focuses not only on theoretically observable DRIF effects in these systems but introduces the important concept of constraining “observable” DRIF based on constraints imposed by the scale of measurements in the field, and on standard limits of detection and analytical uncertainty. Specifically, constraints for the detection of DRIF were determined in terms of the diffusive fractionation factor, the initial concentration of contaminants (C0), the method detection limit (MDL) for isotopic analysis, the transport time, and the ratio of the longitudinal mechanical dispersion coefficient to effective molecular diffusion coefficient (Dmech/Deff). The results allow a determination of field conditions under which DRIF may be an important factor in the use of stable carbon isotope measurements for evaluation of contaminant transport and transformation for one-dimensional advective–dispersive transport. This study demonstrates that for diffusion-dominated transport of BTEX, MTBE, and chlorinated ethenes, DRIF effects are only detectable for the smaller molar mass compounds such as vinyl chloride for C0/MDL ratios of 50 or higher. Much larger C0/MDL ratios, corresponding to higher source concentrations or lower detection limits, are necessary for DRIF to be detectable for the higher molar mass compounds. The distance over which DRIF is observable for VC is small (less than 1m) for a relatively young diffusive plume (<100years), and DRIF will not easily be detected by using the conventional sampling approach with “typical” well spacing (at least several meters). With contaminant transport by advection, mechanical dispersion, and molecular diffusion this study suggests that in field sites where Dmech/Deff is larger than 10, DRIF effects will likely not be observable for common groundwater contaminants. Importantly, under most field conditions, Dmech/Deff≥10 is usually satisfied in the longitudinal direction, suggesting that DRIF is not likely to be observable in most groundwater systems in which contaminant transport is predominantly one-dimensional. Given the importance in the MDL it is recommended that MDL should always be explicitly reported in both modeling and field studies.