Theoretical isotopic fractionation between structural boron in carbonates and aqueous boric acid and borate ion

Etienne Balan*, Johanna Noireaux, Vasileios Mavromatis, Giuseppe D. Saldi, Valérie Montouillout, Marc Blanchard, Fabio Pietrucci, Christel Gervais, James R. Rustad, Jacques Schott, Jérôme Gaillardet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The 11B/10B ratio in calcite and aragonite is an important proxy of oceanic water pH. However, the physico-chemical mechanisms underpinning this approach are still poorly known. In the present study, we theoretically determine the equilibrium isotopic fractionation properties of structural boron species in calcium carbonates, BO33−, BO2(OH)2− and B(OH)4 anions substituted for carbonate groups, as well as those of B(OH)4 and B(OH)3 species in vacuum. Significant variability of equilibrium isotopic fractionation properties is observed among these structural species which is related to their contrasted coordination state, B–O bond lengths and atomic-scale environment. The isotopic composition of structural boron does not only depend on its coordination number but also on its medium range environment, i.e. farther than its first coordination shell. The isotopic fractionation between aqueous species and their counterparts in vacuum are assessed using previous investigations based on similar quantum-mechanical modeling approaches. At 300 K, the equilibrium isotope composition of structural trigonal species is 7–15‰ lighter than that of aqueous boric acid molecules, whereas substituted tetrahedral borate ions are heavier than their aqueous counterparts by 10–13‰. Although significant uncertainties are known to affect the theoretical prediction of fractionation factors between solids and solutions, the usually assumed lack of isotopic fractionation during borate incorporation in carbonates is challenged by these theoretical results. The present theoretical equilibrium fractionation factors between structural boron and aqueous species differ from those inferred from experiments which may indicate that isotopic equilibrium, unlike chemical equilibrium, was not reached in most experiments. Further research into the isotopic fractionation processes at the interface between calcium carbonates and aqueous solution as well as long duration experiments aimed at investigating the kinetics of equilibration of boron environment and isotopic composition are therefore required to refine our understanding of boron coprecipitation in carbonates and thus the theory behind the use of boron isotopes as an ocean pH proxy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-129
Number of pages13
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Ab initio modeling
  • Boron pH-proxy
  • Calcium carbonates
  • Theoretical isotopic fractionation factors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology

Cite this