Uranium redox transition pathways in acetate-amended sediments
Redox transitions of uranium [from U(VI) to U(IV)] in low-temperature sediments govern the mobility of uranium in the environment and the accumulation of uranium in ore bodies, and inform our understanding of Earth's geochemical history. The molecular-scale mechanistic pathways of these transitions determine the U(IV) products formed, thus influencing uranium isotope fractionation, reoxidation, and transport in sediments. Studies that improve our understanding of these pathways have the potential to substantially advance process understanding across a number of earth sciences disciplines. Detailed mechanistic information regarding uranium redox transitions in field sediments is largely nonexistent, owing to the difficulty of directly observing molecular-scale processes in the subsurface and the compositional/physical complexity of subsurface systems. Here, we present results from an in situ study of uranium redox transitions occurring in aquifer sediments under sulfate-reducing conditions. Based on molecular-scale spectroscopic, pore-scale geochemical, and macroscale aqueous evidence, we propose a biotic-abiotic transition pathway in which biomass-hosted mackinawite (FeS) is an electron source to reduce U(VI) to U(IV), which subsequently reacts with biomass to produce monomeric U(IV) species. A species resembling nanoscale uraninite is also present, implying the operation of at least two redox transition pathways. The presence of multiple pathways in low-temperature sediments unifies apparently contrasting prior observations and helps to explain sustained uranium reduction under disparate biogeochemical conditions. These findings have direct implications for our understanding of uranium bioremediation, ore formation, and global geochemical processes.