Evidence for Instantaneous Oxygen-Limited Biodegradation of Petroleum Hydrocarbon Vapors in the Subsurface

Greg Davis, Bradley Patterson, Michael Trefry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

80 Citations (Scopus)


Petroleum hydrocarbon vapors biodegrade aerobically in the subsurface. Depth profiles of petroleum hydrocarbon vapor and oxygen concentrations from seven locations in sandy and clay soils across four states of Australia are summarized. The data are evaluated to support a simple model of biodegradation that can be used to assess hydrocarbon vapors migrating toward built environments. Multilevel samplers and probes that allow near-continuous monitoring of oxygen and total volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were used to determine concentration depth profiles and changes over time. Collation of all data across all sites showed distinct separation of oxygen from hydrocarbon vapors, and that most oxygen and hydrocarbon concentration profiles were linear or near linear with depth. The low detection limit on the oxygen probe data and because it is an in situ measurement strengthened the case that little or no overlapping of oxygen and hydrocarbon vapor concentration profiles occurred, and that indeed oxygen and hydrocarbon vapors were largely only coincident near the location where they both decreased to zero. First-order biodegradation rates determined from all depth profiles were generally lower than other published rates. With lower biodegradation rates, the overlapping of depth profiles might be expected, and yet such overlapping was not observed. A model of rapid (instantaneous) reaction of oxygen and hydrocarbon vapors compared to diffusive transport processes is shown to explain the important aspects of the 13 depth profiles. The model is simply based on the ratio of diffusion coefficients of oxygen and hydrocarbon vapors, the ratio of the maximum concentrations of oxygen and hydrocarbon vapors, the depth to the maximum hydrocarbon source concentration, and the stoichiometry coefficient. Whilst simple, the model offers the potential to incorporate aerobic biodegradation into an oxygen-limited flux-reduction approach for vapor intrusion assessments of petroleum hydrocarbon compounds.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)126-137
JournalGround Water Monitoring & Remediation
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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