Isotopic exchange of carbon-bound hydrogen over geologic timescales

Alex L. Sessions*, Sean P. Sylva, Roger E. Summons, John M. Hayes

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    199 Citations (Scopus)


    The increasing popularity of compound-specific hydrogen isotope (D/H) analyses for investigating sedimentary organic matter raises numerous questions about the exchange of carbon-bound hydrogen over geologic timescales. Important questions include the rates of isotopic exchange, methods for diagnosing exchange in ancient samples, and the isotopic consequences of that exchange. This article provides a review of relevant literature data along with new data from several pilot studies to investigate such issues. Published experimental estimates of exchange rates between organic hydrogen and water indicate that at warm temperatures (50-100°C) exchange likely occurs on timescales of 104 to 108 yr. Incubation experiments using organic compounds and D-enriched water, combined with compound-specific D/H analyses, provide a new and highly sensitive method for measuring exchange at low temperatures. Comparison of δD values for isoprenoid and n-alkyl carbon skeletons in sedimentary organic matter provides no evidence for exchange in young (<1 Ma), cool sediments, but strong evidence for exchange in ancient (>350 Ma) rocks. Specific rates of exchange are probably influenced by the nature and abundance of organic matter, pore-water chemistry, the presence of catalytic mineral surfaces, and perhaps even enzymatic activity. Estimates of equilibrium fractionation factors between organic H and water indicate that typical lipids will be depleted in D relative to water by ∼75 to 140‰ at equilibrium (30°C). Thus large differences in δD between organic molecules and water cannot be unambiguously interpreted as evidence against hydrogen exchange. A better approach may be to use changes in stereochemistry as a proxy for hydrogen exchange. For example, estimated rates of H exchange in pristane are similar to predicted rates for stereochemical inversion in steranes and hopanes. The isotopic consequences of this exchange remain in question. Incubations of cholestene with D2O indicate that the number of D atoms incorporated during structural rearrangements can be far less than the number of C-H bonds that are broken. Sample calculations indicate that, for steranes in immature sediments, the D/H ratio imparted by biosynthesis may be largely preserved in spite of significant structural changes.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1545-1559
    Number of pages15
    JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
    Issue number7
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2004


    Dive into the research topics of 'Isotopic exchange of carbon-bound hydrogen over geologic timescales'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this