Characterization of natural organic matter in low-carbon sediments: Extraction and analytical approaches

Patricia M. Fox, Peter S. Nico, Malak M. Tfaily, Katherine Heckman, James A. Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Organic carbon (OC) concentrations in subsurface sediments are typically 10 to 200 times lower than in surface soils, posing a distinct challenge for characterization. In this study, a range of chemical extractions were evaluated for extraction of natural organic matter (NOM) from two low-carbon (< 0.2%) alluvial sediments. The OC extraction efficiency followed the order pyrophosphate (PP) > NaOH > HCl, hydroxylamine hydrochloride > dithionite, water. A NOM extraction and purification scheme was developed using sequential extraction with water (MQ) and sodium pyrophosphate at pH 10 (PP), combined with purification by dialysis and solid phase extraction in order to isolate different fractions of sediment-associated NOM. Characterization of these pools of NOM for metal content and by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FITR) showed that the water soluble fraction (MQ-SPE) had a higher fraction of aliphatic and carboxylic groups, while the PP-extractable NOM (PP-SPE and PP > 1kD) had higher fractions of C[dbnd]C groups and higher residual metals. This trend from aliphatic to more aromatic is also supported by the specific UV absorbance at 254 nm (SUVA254) (3.5 vs 5.4 for MQ-SPE and PP-SPE, respectively) and electrospray ionization Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance spectrometry (ESI-FTICR-MS) data which showed a greater abundance of peaks in the low O/C and high H/C region (0–0.4 O/C, 0.8–2.0 H/C) for the MQ-SPE fraction of NOM. Radiocarbon measurements yielded standard radiocarbon ages of 1020, 3095, and 9360 years BP for PP-SPE, PP > 1kD, and residual (non-extractable) OC fractions, indicating an increase in NOM stability correlated with greater metal complexation, apparent molecular weight, and aromaticity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12-22
Number of pages11
JournalOrganic Geochemistry
StatePublished - Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Chemical characterization
  • Chemical extraction
  • FTIR
  • Natural organic matter
  • Sediment
  • Soil

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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