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Fakultät für Biologie, Chemie und Geowissenschaften

Umweltgeochemie - Prof. Dr. Britta Planer-Friedrich

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Investigations towards a better understanding of arsenic-sulfur speciation in aquatic environments: Formation, stability, structural characterization, and conflicting analyses

Elke Süß (06/2007-05/2011)

Betreuer: Britta Planer-Friedrich

Stipendiatin der Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes

Arsenic is a widespread contaminant of global concerns due to its neurotoxicity and carcinogenicity. Particularly critical is the speciation of arsenic, influencing its mobility, toxicity and retention capability. Recently, it was analytically proven that arsenic-sulfur (As-S) species play a dominant role for arsenic cycling in sulfidic systems. The geochemistry of As-S species is not well investigated, yet, and especially the nature of these species, thioarsenites vs. thioarsenates, has been under intense debate. The major objective of the present PhD work was to improve the current knowledge about As-S species by structural characterization, investigations of their occurrence, formation and transformation, and evaluation of the analytical techniques, X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) and ion chromatography coupled to ICP-MS (IC-ICP-MS).

By XAS it was shown that under strictly anoxic conditions thioarsenites form in arsenite-sulfide mixes with sulfide (SH-) excess and as co-occurring intermediates during acidic transformation of thioarsenates. Thioarsenites can be specified as highly labile, converting rapidly to thioarsenates in the presence of traces of oxygen, e.g. during standard IC-ICP-MS analyses. Excess hydroxide (OH-) either due to high pH or sample dilution in ultrapure water inhibits the formation of thioarsenites by SH--OH- competition. These facts make the current IC-ICP-MS method even under anoxic conditions unsuitable for thioarsenite analyses. However, thioarsenites were shown to be necessary intermediates for formation of thioarsenates. Thioarsenates determined in natural oxic systems are thus most likely the product of rapid in-situ thioarsenite oxidation. Direct thioarsenite determination is currently only possible by XAS with a limitation on > 5 mM-solutions for structural evaluations. The characteristic coordination and bond length (RAs-S 2.23-2.28 Å) makes thioarsenites distinguishable from thioarsenates (RAs-O 1.70 Å, RAs-S 2.13-2.18 Å). The individual thioarsenates are distinct in their coordination and absorption edge energies, successively decreasing about 1 eV per sulfur atom. Generally, the absorption edge energies decrease in the order arsenate > thioarsenates > arsenite > thioarsenites. This primary XAS-dataset enables the evaluation of (thio)arsenites and (thio)arsenates in mixed solutions.

Despite the greater stability of thioarsenates vs. thioarsenites, they also have been shown to transform under certain conditions. Upon acidification they convert to thioarsenites (anoxic) or arsenite (oxic) with subsequent As-S precipitation. The presence of FeII in anoxic solutions or heating (80 °C) results in their decay to substantial amounts of arsenite. Thioarsenates are also easily oxidized by synthetic oxidants, air purging or naturally along hot spring drainage channels. For trithioarsenate, the major species of alkaline hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, two transformation processes have been identified: successive ligand exchange to arsenate, observed naturally and by using a strong oxidant, and the decay to arsenite (and trithioarsenate) in natural systems and under moderately reducing conditions. However, transformation under natural conditions was up to 500 times faster and is likely catalyzed by Thermocrinis spp..

Naturally important are also processes promoting mobilization or immobilization of arsenic from and at mineral surfaces. Arsenopyrite and orpiment belong to the most abundant (Fe-)As-S minerals with particular importance as host rocks for gold refractory. Oxidative leaching of both minerals yielded up to 50% thioarsenates. The release of thioarsenates from orpiment, at pH 7 and 12, is possibly caused by thioarsenite oxidation. Contrary, physisorption of OH- is the proposed mechanism for arsenopyrite with thioarsenate formation only at highly alkaline pH. The immobilization of monothioarsenate by sorption on ironhydroxide was less effective and kinetically slower compared to arsenate and arsenite.

The presence of iron in As-S systems was hitherto considered to counteract thioarsenate occurrence. This was refuted by finding up to 17% thioarsenates in Czech spring waters. However, those Fe‑As‑S systems are a challenge for sample preservation. While acidification results in As-S precipitation and thioarsenate transformation, flash-freezing as preferred for thioarsenates induces ironhydroxide precipitation. An anoxic gas headspace, a strong matrix and an organic solvent supported the stability of pure thioarsenate solutions, whereas in the presence of iron a combination of EDTA-addition and cryo-preservation is required.

Overall, the present PhD thesis reveals the importance of thioarsenites and thioarsenates for arsenic cycling. The results significantly increase the present knowledge on As-S geochemistry and help to define potential for future studies.

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