Improved sample preparation and counting techniques for enhanced tritium measurement sensitivity

Friday, 18 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
James Moran1, Craig Aalseth1, Vanessa L Bailey1, Emily K Mace2, Cory Overman1, Allen Seifert1 and Eric D Wilcox Freeburg1, (1)Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA, United States, (2)Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, National Security Directorate, Richland, WA, United States
Tritium (T) measurements offer insight to a wealth of environmental applications including hydrologic tracking, discerning ocean circulation patterns, and aging ice formations. However, the relatively short half-life of T (12.3 years) limits its effective age dating range. Compounding this limitation is the decrease in atmospheric T content by over two orders of magnitude (from 1000-2000 TU in 1962 to < 10 TU currently) since the cessation of above ground nuclear testing in the 1960’s. We are developing sample preparation methods coupled to direct counting of T via ultra-low background proportional counters which, when combined, offer improved T measurement sensitivity (~4.5 mmoles of H2 equivalent) and will help expand the application of T age dating to smaller sample sizes linked to persistent environmental questions despite the limitations above. For instance, this approach can be used to T date ~ 2.2 mmoles of CH4 collected from sample-limited systems including microbial communities, soils, or subsurface aquifers and can be combined with radiocarbon dating to distinguish the methane’s formation age from C age in a system. This approach can also expand investigations into soil organic C where the improved sensitivity will permit resolution of soil C into more descriptive fractions and provide direct assessments of the stability of specific classes of organic matter in soils environments.

We are employing a multiple step sample preparation system whereby organic samples are first combusted with resulting CO2 and H2O being used as a feedstock to synthesize CH4. This CH4 is mixed with Ar and loaded directly into an ultra-low background proportional counter for measurement of T β decay in a shallow underground laboratory. Analysis of water samples requires only the addition of geologic CO2 feedstock with the sample for methane synthesis. The chemical nature of the preparation techniques enable high sample throughput with only the final measurement requiring T decay with total sample analysis time ranging from 2 -5 weeks depending on T content.