Forensic science, fire debris, ignitable liquids, microbial degradation, weathering


Ignitable liquids consist of either a single organic compound or a complex organic mixture. In regards to fire debris analysis, the analyst is responsible for determining if an ignitable liquid residue is present. However, when extracted from soil-containing fire debris evidence, chemical degradation from microorganisms is observed to result in the loss of compounds based on chemical structure. It can also happen when the evidence container is stored at room temperature before analysis. This can present a challenge to the fire debris analyst when identifying and classifying the ignitable liquid residue based on the criteria established by standard test methods. The purpose of this research was to observe the microbial degradation of fourteen compounds, at room temperature over a period of time, for possible by-product formation that could coincide with compounds normally present in an ignitable liquid. Additionally, a quantitative assessment was performed to observe and record the loss rate of compounds in a representative simple mixture. Finally, the loss rate from the simple mixture was compared to commercially available ignitable liquids. Degradation studies were conducted to observe the microbial degradation of a representative compounds (individually and in a simple mixture, both weathered and unweathered) and seven ignitable liquids of different ASTM E1618 classifications. Potting soil was spiked with 20 µL of a liquid/compound and was allowed to stand at room temperature for a period of time. The simple mixture was evaporated to 50% and 90% using a steady nitrogen gas flow to compare the degradation process to the unweathered mixture. All samples were extracted and analyzed using passive-headspace concentration and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The formation of by-products was not observed when degrading the compounds from the simple mixture individually as seen in other research. The simple mixture, unweathered and 50% weathered, resulted in rapid degradation of their oxygenated compounds. The straight-chained alkanes and toluene were observed to be more susceptible to microbial attack than the highly-substituted aromatics and the branched and cyclic alkanes. The 90% weathered mixture followed the same degradation trend as the unweathered and 50% weathered samples, although it only contained two compounds. The loss rates/half-lives for each simple mixture sample (unweathered, 50% weathered, and 90% weathered) were determined to be approximately 3.5, 3.5, and 0.84 days. The unweathered and 50% weathered sample half-lives were similar due to containing compounds with similar susceptibility to degradation, while the 90% weathered sample contained one compound that was more highly susceptible to degradation. When comparing the 3.5 day half-life to the seven different ASTM class liquids, the isoparaffinic product and the naphthenic-paraffinic product had similar rates of degradation while aromatic solvent and normal alkane classes had the shortest half-lives. When observing the degradation of the gasoline, medium petroleum distillate and the miscellaneous, the constituent compounds were seen to exhibit a range of degradation rates that corresponded to half-lives less than and greater than 3.5 days.


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Graduation Date





Sigman, Michael


Master of Science (M.S.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program

Forensic Science; Forensic Analysis








Release Date

December 2016

Length of Campus-only Access

1 year

Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)


Dissertations, Academic -- Sciences; Sciences -- Dissertations, Academic