hydrocarbon fingerprinting by torkelson geochemistry


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Hydrocarbon Fingerprinting

Hydrocarbon fingerprinting, sometimes referred to as hydrocarbon characterization, is a forensic geochemistry technique that is useful for evaluating releases of petroleum and petroleum products. The primary source of information for this technique is high resolution capillary gas chromatography with a flame ionization detector which gives detailed information not available from routine EPA methods. This analysis can be done using free product samples, extracts from soils, and extracts from water samples.


Four main questions can usually be answered using this technique:

    1) What type or types of petroleum have been released
    2) What type and degree of weathering has the petroleum experienced since release
    3) In some cases, when was the product released
    4) How do nearby samples compare to each other

Type of Product

Interpreting the type of product or products present in a sample using gas chromatography data is primarily a process of visual examination and comparison with chromatograms of known products. There have been some advances in using statistical and numerical techniques to evaluate the data, but these should only be considered tools to assist in the interpretation and not a means to the final answer. During the evaluation the interpreter must always be vigilant for the effects of weathering and mixing of two or more products. Weathering, discussed in more detail latter, can alter the chemistry of a product, which in turn effects the appearance of the chromatogram and so must be taken in to account when interpreting the gas chromatograms.

Click here to see examples of Chromatograms.

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There are three primary types of weathering that may effect the chemistry and thus the character of the gas chromatogram of released products. Evaporation reduces the amount of the most volatile compounds in a product. This is especially noticeable in gasolines or products with compounds in the gasoline range. Biodegradation will selectively remove certain types of hydrocarbons from a product. The bacteria prefer normal paraffins, but when the normal paraffins are gone the bacteria will start to remove other types of hydrocarbons. Water washing (dissolution) preferentially removes the more water soluble components of released products. The oxygenates in gasoline are some of the most soluble compounds followed by the BTEX compounds. Understanding how these three weathering processes effect the chemistry of released products and the chromatograms is essential to accurately interpret the type or types of products released.

  • Example of Evaporation
  • Example of Biodegradation
  • Example of Water Washing

    Age Estimation

    Several techniques have been postulated for estimating the age or time of release of petroleum products. Of these, the one developed by Christiansen and Larsen (1993) and further substantiated by Schmidt, Beckmann and Torkelson (1999) appears to be the most useful for middle distillates such as diesel fuel. Christensen and Larsen analyzed a set of samples from sites where the date of the diesel fuel spill was known. They discovered that the ratio of nC17 to Pristane had a high correlation with the age of the spill. From their work a formula (-8.4 x nC17/Pristane + 19.8 +/-2) can be used as a way to estimate the age of a spill. Schmidt, Beckmann and Torkelson expanded the number of known age spills in the data base and further validated the original work of Christiansen and Larsen.

    Comparison to Nearby Samples

    Comparison of samples collected and analyzed from the same site can be useful for evaluating the lateral extent of individual spills (plumes), the commingling of two or more plumes, and likely direction of the source of a spill.

    Routine Data Presentation

    The results of the gas chromatography analyses are usually e-mailed to clients in the form of an MS-Word document. There will be two pages for each sample. One page has the chromatogram filling the entire page. The second page has four widows and two columns of data. One window shows the entire chromatogram and three smaller windows show different segments of the chromatogram. The two columns of data are the peak heights and peak areas for the peaks identified on the chromatogram. There will also be a scan of the chain of custody form that came with the samples.

  • Example of full-size chromatogram
  • Example of Multi-panel display

  • Semiquantitative Results

    Any of the identified peaks can be reported as percentage of the entire chromatogram. This is not true quantitative data since there is no calibration of the instruments. The reported semiquantitative data is probably plus or minus 10% of a true quantitative analysis, ie if a true quantitative value is 10% the semiquantitative value might be reported as low as 9% and as high as 11%.

    Customized Data Presentation

    Customized presentation of the analytical results are available for an additional fee.

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