Jim Letourneau's Blog

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Carbon Isotopes in the News

One of the fun things about being a blogger instead of a carbon isotope geochemist is that you can read  the highlights of someone else's research project  from the comfort of a Starbucks on 17th Ave. in Calgary  (this is a lucky Starbucks... I met my fiancee here).

I did some graduate level geochemistry work at the University of Alberta and learned about carbon isotopes from Dr. Karlis Muehlenbachs. I almost quit after the first lecture as my knowledge of atomic physics wasn't particularly strong. I still have trouble getting jokes like this...

Two atoms are leaving a bar when one realizes that he left his
electrons back in the bar. His friend asks, "Are you sure?" "Yes," he
replies. "I'm positive!"

or the more useful

You are what you eat (plus minus a few ‰) - which was also the partial title to scientific abstract.

Although he has a multitude of research interests, his work with carbon isotope fingerprinting of natural gases in Alberta has been very useful in determining whether water wells are contaminated by coal bed methane drilling and production activities.

I don't know much about isotopes but I can attest to their amazing reliability and repeatability in fingerprinting gases. The verdict is in and The Edmonton Journal has reported on the results of a study designed to determine the source of natural gas in Central Alberta water wells.

The Alberta Research Council have concluded the following about the source of methane in Central Alberta water wells:

"... energy development
projects in the areas most likely have not adversely affected the
complainant water wells."

The industry got a pass on this one but as Dr. Muehlenbachs points out:

The problem with assigning blame is that in these regions there have been several generations of drilling ( I'll take the liberty of mentioning the associated blowouts, casing leaks etc.)

It isn't difficult to find sources of natural gas leaking to surface around old wells so there will be more exciting gas isotope fingerprinting stories to come.

While carbon isotopes are pretty cool, I'm really excited about the gas detection instruments being built by Synodon Inc. (SYD.V). While their main market is pipeline leak detection (which pays much better than doing speculative geological surveys) I believe it is just a matter of time before the obvious geological and environmental applications are recognized.