Direct experimental evidence of non-first order degradation kinetics and sorption-induced isotopic fractionation in a mesoscale aquifer: 13C/12C analysis of a transient toluene pulse. Academic Article uri icon


  • The injection of a mixed toluene and D2O (conservative tracer) pulse into a pristine mesoscale aquifer enabled a first direct experimental comparison of contaminant-specific isotopic fractionation from sorption versus biodegradation and transverse dispersion on a relevant scale. Water samples were taken from two vertically resolved sampling ports at 4.2 m distance. Analysis of deuterium and toluene concentrations allowed quantifying the extent of sorption (R = 1.25) and biodegradation (37% and 44% of initial toluene at the two sampling ports). Sorption and biodegradation were found to directly affect toluene (13)C/(12)C breakthrough curves. In particular, isotope trends demonstrated that biodegradation underwent Michaelis-Menten kinetics rather than first-order kinetics. Carbon isotope enrichment factors obtained from an optimized reactive transport model (Eckert et al., this issue) including a possible isotope fractionation of transverse dispersion were ε(equ)(sorption) = -0.31 ‰, ε(kin)(transverse-dispersion) = -0.82 ‰, and ε(kin)(biodegradation) = -2.15 ‰. Extrapolation of our results to the scenario of a continuous injection predicted that (i) the bias in isotope fractionation from sorption, but not transverse dispersion, may be avoided when the plume reaches steady-state; and (ii) the relevance from both processes is expected to decrease at longer flow distances when isotope fractionation of degradation increasingly dominates.

author list (cited authors)

  • Qiu, S., Eckert, D., Cirpka, O. A., Huenniger, M., Knappett, P., Maloszewski, P., ... Elsner, M.

citation count

  • 13

publication date

  • July 2013