Pressurized laboratory experiments show no stable carbon isotope fractionation of methane during gas hydrate dissolution and dissociation


L. L. Lapham, Center for Geomicrobiology, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 114–116 Build. 1540 Aarhus C, DK-8000 Denmark.



The stable carbon isotopic ratio of methane (δ13C-CH4) recovered from marine sediments containing gas hydrate is often used to infer the gas source and associated microbial processes. This is a powerful approach because of distinct isotopic fractionation patterns associated with methane production by biogenic and thermogenic pathways and microbial oxidation. However, isotope fractionations due to physical processes, such as hydrate dissolution, have not been fully evaluated. We have conducted experiments to determine if hydrate dissolution or dissociation (two distinct physical processes) results in isotopic fractionation. In a pressure chamber, hydrate was formed from a methane gas source at 2.5 MPa and 4°C, well within the hydrate stability field. Following formation, the methane source was removed while maintaining the hydrate at the same pressure and temperature which stimulated hydrate dissolution. Over the duration of two dissolution experiments (each ~20–30 days), water and headspace samples were periodically collected and measured for methane concentrations and δ13C-CH4 while the hydrate dissolved. For both experiments, the methane concentrations in the pressure chamber water and headspace increased over time, indicating that the hydrate was dissolving, but the δ13C-CH4 values showed no significant trend and remained constant, within 0.5‰. This lack of isotope change over time indicates that there is no fractionation during hydrate dissolution. We also investigated previous findings that little isotopic fractionation occurs when the gas hydrate dissociates into gas bubbles and water due to the release of pressure. Over a 2.5 MPa pressure drop, the difference in the δ13C-CH4 was <0.3‰. We have therefore confirmed that there is no isotope fractionation when the gas hydrate dissociates and demonstrated that there is no fractionation when the hydrate dissolves. Therefore, measured δ13C-CH4 values near gas hydrates are not affected by physical processes, and can thus be interpreted to result from either the gas source or associated microbial processes. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.