Ethanol (EtOH), an emerging contaminant with potential direct and indirect environmental effects, poses threats to water supplies when spilled in large volumes. A series of experiments was directed at understanding the electrical geophysical signatures arising from groundwater contamination by ethanol. Conductivity measurements were performed at the laboratory scale on EtOH–water mixtures (0 to 0.97 v/v EtOH) and EtOH–salt solution mixtures (0 to 0.99 v/v EtOH) with and without a sand matrix using a conductivity probe and a four-electrode electrical measurement over the low frequency range (1–1000 Hz). A Lichtenecker–Rother (L–R) type mixing model was used to simulate electrical conductivity as a function of EtOH concentration in the mixture. For all three experimental treatments increasing EtOH concentration resulted in a decrease in measured conductivity magnitude (|σ|). The applied L–R model fitted the experimental data at concentration ≤ 0.4 v/v EtOH, presumably due to predominant and symmetric intermolecular (EtOH–water) interaction in the mixture. The deviation of the experimental |σ| data from the model prediction at higher EtOH concentrations may be associated with hydrophobic effects of EtOH–EtOH interactions in the mixture. The |σ| data presumably reflected changes in relative strength of the three types of interactions (water–water, EtOH–water, and EtOH–EtOH) occurring simultaneously in EtOH–water mixtures as the ratio of EtOH to water changed. No evidence of measurable polarization effects at the EtOH–water and EtOH–water–mineral interfaces over the investigated frequency range was found. Our results indicate the potential for using electrical measurements to characterize and monitor EtOH spills in the subsurface.
Additional publication details
Electrical signatures of ethanol-liquid mixtures: implications for monitoring biofuels migration in the subsurface