On the use of Li isotopes as a proxy for water–rock interaction in fractured crystalline rocks: a case study from the Gotthard rail base tunnel

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Wanner, C. ; Bucher, K. ; Pogge von Strandmann, Philip A.E.

We present Li isotope measurements of groundwater samples collected during drilling of the 57 km long Gotthard rail base tunnel in Switzerland, to explore the use of Li isotope measurements for tracking water–rock interactions in fractured crystalline rocks at temperatures of up to 43 °C. The 17 groundwater samples originate from water-conducting fractures within two specific crystalline rock units, which are characterized by a similar rock mineralogy, but significantly different fluid composition. In particular, the aqueous Li concentrations observed in samples from the two units vary from 1–4 mg/L to 0.01–0.02 mg/L. Whereas δ7Li values from the unit with high Li concentrations are basically constant (δ7Li = 8.5–9.1‰), prominent variations are recorded for the samples from the unit with low Li concentrations (δ7Li = 10–41‰). This observation demonstrates that Li isotope fractionation can be highly sensitive to aqueous Li concentrations. Moreover, δ7Li values from the unit with low Li concentrations correlate well with reaction progress parameters such as pH and [Li]/[Na] ratios, suggesting that δ7Li values are mainly controlled by the residence time of the fracture groundwater. Consequently, 1D reactive transport modeling was performed to simulate mineral reactions and associated Li isotope fractionation along a water-conducting fracture system using the code TOUGHREACT. Modeling results confirm the residence time hypothesis and demonstrate that the absence of δ7Li variation at high Li concentrations can be well explained by limitation of the amount of Li that is incorporated into secondary minerals. Modeling results also suggest that Li uptake by kaolinite forms the key process to cause Li isotope fractionation in the investigated alkaline system (pH >9), and that under slow flow conditions (<10 m/year), this process is associated with a very large Li isotope fractionation factor (ε ≈ −50‰). Moreover, our simulations demonstrate that for simple and well-defined systems with known residence times and low Li concentrations, δ7Li values may help to quantify mineral reaction rates if more thermodynamic data about the temperature-dependent incorporation of Li in secondary minerals as well as corresponding fractionation factors become available in the future. In conclusion, δ7Li values may be a powerful tool to track water–rock interaction in fractured crystalline rocks at temperature higher than those at the Earth’s surface, although their use is restricted to low Li concentrations and well defined flow systems.
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