Stable isotopes serve as naturally occurring tracers that can provide much information about how chemical reactions proceed in nature, such as which reactants are consumed and at what temperatures reactions occur. The stable isotopes of several of the lighter elements are sufficiently abundant and fractionate strongly enough to be of special usefulness. Foremost in importance are hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and sulfur. The strong conceptual link between stable isotopes and chemical reaction makes it possible to integrate isotope fractionation into reaction modeling, allowing us to predict not only the mineralogical and chemical consequences of a reaction process, but also the isotopic compositions of the reaction products. By tracing the distribution of isotopes in our calculations, we can better test our reaction models against observation and perhaps better understand how isotopes fractionate in nature. Bowers and Taylor (1985) were the first to incorporate isotope fractionation into a reaction model. They used a modified version of EQ3/EQ6 (Wolery, 1979) to study the convection of hydrothermal fluids through the oceanic crust, along midocean ridges. Their calculation method is based on evaluating mass balance equations, as described in this chapter. As originally derived, however, the mass balance model has an important (and well acknowledged) limitation: implicit in its formulation is the assumption that fluid and minerals in the modeled system remain in isotopic equilibrium over the reaction path. This assumption is equivalent to assuming that isotope exchange between fluid and minerals occurs rapidly enough to maintain equilibrium compositions. We know, however, that isotope exchange in nature tends to be a slow process, especially at low temperature (e.g., O’Neil, 1987). This knowledge comes from experimental study (e.g., Cole and Ohmoto, 1986) as well as from the simple observation that, unless they have reacted together, groundwaters and minerals are seldom observed to be in isotopic equilibrium with each other. In fact, if exchange were a rapid process, it would be very difficult to interpret the origin of geologic materials from their isotopic compositions: the information would literally diffuse away. Lee and Bethke (1996) presented an alternative technique, also based on mass balance equations, in which the reaction modeler can segregate minerals from isotopic exchange. By segregating the minerals, the model traces the effects of the isotope fractionation that would result from dissolution and precipitation reactions alone.
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