U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

New Approach to Characterize Natural Organic Matter in Belowground Sediments
Published: August 26, 2017
Posted: January 22, 2018

Efforts to characterize carbon stored in sediments below 1 meter are critical for understanding the mechanisms that control the stability and dynamics of the largest fraction of the earth’s total carbon pool.

The Science
Organic carbon concentrations in sediments more than 1 meter below the land surface are typically 10 to 200 times lower than in surface soils, posing a distinct challenge for characterization. A range of chemical extractions were evaluated for extraction of natural organic matter (NOM) from low-carbon (<0.2%) alluvial sediments. Additionally, an extraction and purification scheme was developed in order to isolate and characterize different fractions of sediment-associated NOM.

The Impact
Using a combination of analytical approaches, high-quality chemical characterization data was collected on NOM from understudied low-carbon sediments. The developed approach can be used to provide insight into the mechanisms controlling the stability and dynamics of NOM in low-carbon sediments.

Surface soils typically contain 5-10% levels of organic carbon (OC), but OC concentrations in sediments more than 1 meter below the land surface are often 10 to 200 times lower, and the usual techniques to measure the chemical characteristics of OC in these sediments are not sufficiently sensitive. In this study, a range of chemical extractions were evaluated for extraction of natural organic matter (NOM) from two low-carbon (<0.2%) alluvial sediments. The OC extraction efficiency followed the order pyrophosphate (PP)>NaOH>HCl, hydroxylamine hydrochloride>dithionite, water. A NOM extraction and purification scheme was developed using sequential extraction with water (MQ) and sodium pyrophosphate at pH 10 (PP), combined with purification by dialysis and solid phase extraction in order to isolate different fractions of sediment-associated NOM. Characterization of these pools of NOM for metal content and by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FITR) showed that the water soluble fraction (MQ-SPE) had a higher fraction of aliphatic and carboxylic groups, while the PP-extractable NOM (PP-SPE and PP >1kD) had higher fractions of C=C groups and higher residual metals. This trend from aliphatic to more aromatic is also supported by the specific UV absorbance at 254 nm (SUVA254) (3.5 vs 5.4 for MQ-SPE and PP-SPE, respectively) and electrospray ionization Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance spectrometry (ESI-FTICR-MS) data which showed a greater abundance of peaks in the low O/C and high H/C region (0-0.4 O/C, 0.8-2.0 H/C) for the MQ-SPE fraction of NOM. Radiocarbon measurements yielded standard radiocarbon ages of 1020, 3095, and 9360 years BP for PP-SPE, PP >1kD, and residual (non-extractable) OC fractions, indicating an increase in NOM stability correlated with greater metal complexation, apparent molecular weight, and aromaticity.

BER PM Contact
David Lesmes, SC-23.1, 301-903-2977

Susan Hubbard
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Funding for this study was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, BER Contract DE-AC020SCH11231 to the LBNL Sustainable Systems Scientific Focus Area.

P.M. Fox, P.S. Nico, M.M. Tfaily, K. Heckman, and J.A. Davis, “Characterization of natural organic matter in low-carbon sediments: Extraction and analytical approaches.” Organic Geochemistry, 114, 12-22 (2017). [DOI: 10.1016/j.orggeochem.2017.08.009]

Related Links
Data archive:
Fox, Patricia; Nico, Peter; Tfaily, Malak; Heckman, Katherine; Davis, James (2017), “Data for: Characterization of Natural Organic Matter in Low-Carbon Sediments: Extraction and Analytical Approaches”, Mendeley Data, [DOI: 10.17632/5f3hbm69w6.2]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Subsurface Biogeochemical Research

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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