Understanding biogeobatteries: Where geophysics meets microbiology

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Abstract

[1] Although recent research suggests that contaminant plumes behave as geobatteries that produce an electrical current in the ground, no associated model exists that honors both geophysical and biogeochemical constraints. Here, we develop such a model to explain the two main electrochemical contributions to self-potential signals in contaminated areas. Both contributions are associated with the gradient of the activity of two types of charge carriers, ions and electrons. In the case of electrons, bacteria act as catalysts for reducing the activation energy needed to exchange the electrons between electron donors and electron acceptors. Possible mechanisms that facilitate electron migration include iron oxides, clays, and conductive biological materials, such as bacterial conductive pili or other conductive extracellular polymeric substances. Because we explicitly consider the role of biotic processes in the geobattery model, we coined the term “biogeobattery.” After theoretical development of the biogeobattery model, we compare model predictions with self-potential responses associated with laboratory and field scale investigations conducted in contaminated environments. We demonstrate that the amplitude and polarity of large (>100 mV) self-potential signatures requires the presence of an electronic conductor to serve as a bridge between electron donors and acceptors. Small self-potential anomalies imply that electron donors and electron acceptors are not directly interconnected, but instead result simply from the gradient of the activity of the ionic species that are present in the system.

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