Purification and Detection of 39Ar in Groundwater Samples via Low-Level Counting

Friday, 18 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Emily K Mace1, Craig Aalseth2, Jill M Brandenberger2, Paul Humble2, Mark Panisko2, Allen Seifert2 and Richard M Williams2, (1)Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, National Security Directorate, Richland, WA, United States, (2)Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA, United States
Argon-39 can be used as a radiotracer to age-date groundwater aquifers to study recharge rates and to better understand the mean residence time, or age distributions, of groundwater. Argon-39 (with a half-life of 269 years) is created in the atmosphere by cosmic rays interacting with argon in the air (primarily 40Ar). The use of 39Ar as a radiotracer fills a gap in the age dating range which is currently covered by 3H/3He or 85Kr (< 50 years) and 14C (>1000 years); 39Ar fills the intermediate time scale range from 50-1000 years where the previously established radiotracers are not adequate.

We will introduce the process for purifying and detecting 39Ar in ground water using ultra-low-background proportional counters (ULBPCs) at the shallow underground laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Argon-39 is detected through direct beta counting using ULBPCs loaded with a mixture of geologic argon (extracted from a carbon dioxide well with no measureable 39Ar activity) and methane, which enhances the sensitivity for 39Ar measurements. The ULBPCs have been shown to have a background count rate of 148 counts per day (cpd) in the energy range 3-400 keV when filled with 10 atm of P-10 counting gas (90% geologic Ar, 10% CH4).

Initial demonstration samples were collected from groundwater aquifers in Fresno, California supported by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). A discussion of the sampling technique to degas the water from these wells and to then purify it for counting will be presented. In order to quantify the 39Ar contribution in the groundwater samples, the ULBPCs were characterized to determine two components: 1) the detector efficiency to modern levels of 39Ar, and 2) the remaining detector background (using geologic sourced argon which is free from 39Ar – no measureable 39Ar activity). These characterization results will be presented along with a discussion of the quantification of the 39Ar age of the demonstration measurements.