Deuterium oxide (heavy water; 2H2O); D2O) when injected into the water table gives direct insight into the movement and distribution of groundwater within an aquifer. Deuterium can be detected in small amounts informing scientists on where and how much water is flowing in a specific location (groundwater hydrology). Hydrology, using deuterium as a tracer, is applied in environmental studies, water and waste-water mapping, and more recently in the monitoring of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking.” Deuterium is used in hydraulic fracturing in the exploration process for natural gas by oilfield services and applications, as a tracer in drilling fluids (used to determine if drilling fluid penetrated the core), and in geological research. As there are no harmful chemicals associated with D2O, and it is a stable isotope, its hydrological applications cause no environmental hazards.
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Hydrology refers to research which addresses the movement of water or the amount which is present in a given area. Some components of hydrology include developing methods for directly measuring the amount or flow of water, whereas other areas concern creating theoretical models of how water acts in a given situation.
In this process, tracers are commonly used to accurately track and monitor the water streams. The tracer is added to the liquid that will be monitored, and due to its chemical nature, it is recognized and analysed generally through the use of complex algorithms and software. An environmentally harmless and popular solution is to use deuterium as the tracer in this process.
For thousands of years, hydrology has been investigated and studied by scientists. One of the earliest signs of hydrology was around 4000B.C.E. when the Nile was dammed to improve the productivity of agricultural land that had been previously barren. Since then, massive advancements in the field of hydrology have been made, bringing along a variety of new branches. No longer is hydrology limited to the study of how surface water acts, but it now also includes studying how pollutants travel in the ground, monitoring the “fracking” process, changes in aquifers, among many other areas. When deuterium was popularized after its discovery, the field of hydrology once again changed as the isotopic variances in the hydrogen atoms in water altered how the molecules acted. Hydrology, with the use of deuterium, was able to make use of a tracer that behaved hydrologically identical to the water that was being studied.
In the years leading up to the second world war, the leading analytical tool for measuring the variations of isotopic abundance in water was based on the difference between light and heavy water. Later, these measurements were improved dramatically such that they were accurate to one part in ten million. The increase in accuracy was a result of the use of mass spectrometers and better technique. As a result, a fair amount of the early work done in the field of deuterium-related hydrology, useful in indicating that variations in abundances occurs, was of limited quantitative use as more accurate values were later found thus altering the findings.
Pure heavy water, D2O, is the oxide of the heavy stable isotope of hydrogen, deuterium, denoted by the symbols 2H or D. Physically and chemically it is almost identical to ordinary “light” water, H2O, however, its density is 10% higher. It is this higher density of the isotope that gives the compound its nickname, “heavy water.” However, deuterium is not only limited to a liquid water format but also can be converted into other products like gas.