In many natural systems aqueous geochemical conditions dictate the reaction pathways of organic compounds. Geologic settings that span wide ranges in temperature, pressure, and composition vastly alter relative reaction rates and resulting organic abundances. The dependence of organic reactions on these variables contributes to planetary-scale nutrient cycling, and suggests that relative abundances of organic compounds can reveal information about inaccessible geologic environments, whether from the terrestrial subsurface, remote planetary settings, or even the distant past (if organic abundances are well preserved). Despite their relevance to planetary modeling and exploration, organic reactions remain poorly characterized under geochemically relevant conditions, especially in terms of their reaction kinetics, mechanisms, and equilibria.
In order to better understand organic transformations in natural systems, the reactivities of oxygen- and nitrogen-bearing organic functional groups were investigated under experimental hydrothermal conditions, at 250°C and 40 bar. The model compounds benzylamine and α-methylbenzylamine were used as analogs to environmentally relevant amines, ultimately elucidating two dominant deamination mechanisms for benzylamine, SN1 and SN2, and a single SN1 mechanism for deamination of α-methylbenzylamine. The presence of unimolecular and bimolecular mechanisms has implications for temperature dependent kinetics, indicating that Arrhenius rate extrapolation is currently unreliable for deamination.
Hydrothermal experiments with benzyl alcohol, benzylamine, dibenzylamine, or tribenzylamine as the starting material indicate that substitution reactions between these compounds (and others) are reversible and approach metastable equilibrium after 72 hours. These findings suggest that relative ratios of organic compounds capable of substitution reactions could be targeted as tracers of inaccessible geochemical conditions.
Metastable equilibria for organic reactions were investigated in a natural low-temperature serpentinizing continental system. Serpentinization is a water-rock reaction which generates hyperalkaline, reducing conditions. Thermodynamic calculations were performed for reactions between dissolved inorganic carbon and hydrogen to produce methane, formate, and acetate. Quantifying conditions that satisfy equilibrium for these reactions allows subsurface conditions to be predicted. These calculations also lead to hypotheses regarding active microbial processes during serpentinization.