A water extraction, static headspace sampling, gas chromatographic method to determine MTBE in heating oil and diesel fuel

T M Cummins, G A Robbins, B J Henebry, C R Goad, E J Gilbert, M E Miller, J D Stuart
Environmental Science & Technology 2001 March 15, 35 (6): 1202-8
A method was developed to determine the fuel/water partition coefficient (KMTBE) of methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) and then used to determine low parts per million concentrations of MTBE in samples of heating oil and diesel fuel. A special capillary column designed for the separation of MTBE and to prevent coelution and a gas chromatograph equipped with a photoionization detector (PID) were used. MTBE was partitioned from fuel samples into water during an equilibration step. The water samples were then analyzed for MTBE using static headspace sampling followed by GC/PID. A mathematical relationship was derived that allowed a KMTBE value to be calculated by utilizing the fuel/water volume ratios and the corresponding PID signal. KMTBE values were found to range linearly from 3.8 to 10.9 over a temperature range of 5-40 degrees C. This analysis method gave a MDL of 0.7 ppm MTBE in the fuel and a relative average accuracy of +/-15% by comparison with an independent laboratory using purge and trap GC/ MS analysis. MTBE was found in home heating oil in residential tanks and in diesel fuel at service stations throughout the state of Connecticut. The levels of MTBE were found to vary significantly with time. Heating oil and diesel fuel from terminals were also found to contain MTBE. This research suggests thatthe reported widespread contamination of groundwater with MTBE may also be due to heating oil and diesel fuel releases to the environment. used extensively for the past 20 years as a gasoline additive (up to 15 wt %) to reduce automobile carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions. The fact that MTBE is highly soluble in water (approximately 5 wt %) (3) and chemically inert when compared to other fuel constituents causes it to be often detected at high concentrations in groundwater in the vicinity of gasoline spills. The EPA has reported that low levels of MTBE in drinking water (above 40 microg/L) may cause unpleasant taste and odors and has designated MTBE as a possible human carcinogen (4). Past studies have concentrated on the reporting of MTBE levels in groundwater near gasoline spills. Happel et al. reported an MTBE occurrence rate of approximately 78% at locations where hydrocarbons have impacted groundwater (5). Johnson et al. estimate that 9,000 leaking underground fuel tanks have caused MTBE contamination at community water supplies in the 31 states surveyed (excluding California and Texas) (6). Robbins et al. reported finding a significant number of MTBE detections in groundwater samples taken at sites in Connecticut known to be contaminated by heating oil spills (7). Later, this same research group reported finding MTBE contamination to range from 9.7 to 906 mg/L in heating oil and from 74 to 120 mg/L in diesel fuel in samples collected from storage tanks in Connecticut (8). The method used to analyze these samples was based on fuel-water partitioning and GC analysis. This present study provides the detailed basis for that analytical method. MTBE fuel-water partition coefficients as a function of temperature, which are critical to the method, are also presented. This study also reports on variations in MTBE levels as a function of time observed at several residences and a service station. Analytical results are reported for samples taken from terminals as part of an effort to assess the sources of MTBE in heating oil and diesel fuel.

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