Structural environments of carboxyl groups in natural organic molecules from terrestrial systems. Part 1: Infrared spectroscopy


Carboxyls play an important role in the chemistry of natural organic molecules (NOM) in the environment, and their behavior is dependent on local structural environment within the macromolecule. We studied the structural environments of carboxyl groups in dissolved NOM from the Pine Barrens (New Jersey, USA), and IHSS NOM isolates from soils and river waters using attenuated total reflection Fourier-transform infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopy. It is well established that the energies of the asymmetric stretching vibrations of the carboxylate anion (COO-) are sensitive to the structural environment of the carboxyl group. These energies were compiled from previous infrared studies on small organic acids for a wide variety of carboxyl structural environments and compared with the carboxyl spectral features of the NOM samples. We found that the asymmetric stretching peaks for all NOM samples occur within a narrow range centered at 1578 cm-1 suggesting that all NOM samples examined primarily contain very similar carboxyl structures, independent of sample source and isolation techniques employed. The small aliphatic acids containing hydroxyl (e.g., D-lactate, gluconate), ether/ester (methoxyacetate, acetoxyacetate), and carboxylate (malonate) substitutions on the alpha-carbon, and the aromatic acids salicylate (ortho-OH) and furancarboxylate (O-heterocycle), exhibit strong overlap with the NOM range, indicating that similar structures may be common in NOM. The width of the asymmetric peak suggests that the structural heterogeneity among the predominant carboxyl configurations in NOM is small. Changes in peak area with pH at energies distant from the peak at 1578 cm-1, however, may be indicative of a small fraction of other aromatic carboxyls and aliphatic structures lacking alpha-substitution. This information is important in understanding NOM-metal and mineral-surface complexation, and in building appropriate structural and mechanistic models of humic materials.