Fingerprinting Crude Oils and Tarballs using Biomarkers and Comprehensive Two-Dimensional Gas Chromatography

Author(s): Michelle Misselwitz, Jack Cochran, Chris English, and Barry Burger
Restek Corporation

Published By: Restek Corporation

Year of Publication: 2013


Abstract: Petroleum biomarkers are “molecular fossils” that can be analyzed with gas chromatography to fingerprint crude oil. Fingerprints can then be used to determine the source oil for an oil spill or highly weathered tarballs. This unique fingerprint is developed by evaluating several ratios of key biomarkers, such as steranes and hopanes. Comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography time-of-flight mass spectrometry (GCxGC-TOFMS) was used to evaluate biomarker ratios in several crude oils from various regions and also in tarballs that washed ashore on the gulf coast of Florida up to a year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. While one-dimensional GC-MS is often used for this analysis, the power of GCxGC provides enhanced specificity and peak capacity with increased resolving power that can separate diagnostic biomarkers from potential isobaric interferences. Also, GCxGC provides a structured chromatogram, which allows compound identification that would be impossible with GC-MS due to the complexity of crude oil. In this study, using 43 different biomarker ratios from GCxGC-TOFMS analysis, we identified one tarball from a Florida beach that was a possible match to oil from a broken riser pipe collected via an underwater robot during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Others were considered non-matches.