Boosting subsurface life: is subseafloor sediment a natural catalyst for radiolytic hydrogen production?

Monday, 15 December 2014
Justine Sauvage1, Dennis Graham1, Arthur J Spivack1, Ann G Dunlea2, Richard W Murray3 and Steven D'Hondt4, (1)University of Rhode Island - GSO, Oceanography, Narragansett, RI, United States, (2)Boston University, Boston, MA, United States, (3)Boston Univ, Boston, MA, United States, (4)University of Rhode Island, Narragansett, RI, United States
Naturally occurring production of molecular hydrogen (H2) by water radiolysis may be a fundamentally important source of electron donors (energy) for life in subsurface environments where organic matter is scarce. Previous studies with very high gamma radiation rates and wet mineral phases have reported high H2 production relative to production from water radiolysis in the absence of solid phases. Numerical calculations by other previous studies have predicted enhanced H2 production from seawater radiolysis relative to pure water radiolysis, due to the interaction of anions with hydroxyl radicals.

Given these reports, the potential catalytic influences of solid and dissolved chemical phases on radiolytic H2 production need to be carefully quantified in order to fully evaluate the role of radiolytic H2 as a microbial energy source.

For such quantification, we undertook gamma-irradiation experiments with pure water, deep ocean water and mixtures (slurries, φ = 0.85) of seawater with: North Pacific abyssal clay and calcareous oozes, coastal sediment, zirconium dioxide, and zeolite. We carried out our experiments at the Rhode Island Nuclear Science Center using a 37Cesium source at low dose rates (up to 0.1 Gy/hr).

Our results to date include the following. First, the per-dose radiolytic H2 yield of pure water at low dose rates is directly comparable to the per-dose yield at much higher dose rates (ca. 1 kGy/hr); this result indicates that H2 production rate is linearly related to radiation dose rate across four orders of magnitude. Second, there is no statistically significant difference (90% confidence limit) between the radiolytic H2 yield from pure water and that from seawater; this result rules out influence of abundant seawater salts on H2 yield from water radiolysis. Third, H2 production from a mixture of abyssal clay and seawater is 25% higher than the yield from pure water. This enhanced yield is consistent with catalysis of radiolytic H2 production by zeolite.