Acidification provides the thrust

Kimberlites are magmatic rocks that form deep in the Earth’s interior and are brought to the surface by volcanic eruptions. On their turbulent journey upwards magmas assimilate other types of minerals, collectively referred to as xenoliths (Greek for “foreign rocks”). The xenoliths found in kimberlite include diamonds, and the vast majority of the diamonds mined in the world today is found in kimberlite ores. Exactly how kimberlites acquire the necessary buoyancy for their long ascent through the Earth’s crust has, however, been something of a mystery. An international research team led by Professor Donald Dingwell, Director of the Department of Geo- and Environmental Sciences at LMU, has now demonstrated that assimilated rocks picked up along the way are responsible for the providing the required impetus. The primordial magma is basic, but the incorporation of silicate minerals encountered during its ascent makes the melt more acidic. This leads to the release of carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles, which reduce the density of the melt, essentially causing it to foam. The net result is an increase in the buoyancy of the magma, which facilitates its continued ascent. “Because our results enhance our understanding of the genesis of kimberlite, they will be useful in the search for new diamond-bearing ores and will facilitate the evaluation of existing sources,” says Dingwell. (Nature 18. January 2012)

Most known kimberlites formed in the period between 70 and 150 million years ago, but some are over 1200 million years old. Generally speaking, kimberlites are found only in cratons, the oldest surviving areas of continental crust, which form the nuclei of continental landmasses and have remained virtually unchanged since their formation eons ago. </P

Kimberlitic magmas form about 150 km below the Earth’s surface, i.e. at much greater depths than any other volcanic rocks. The temperatures and pressures at such depths are so high that carbon can crystallize in the form of diamonds. When kimberlitic magmas are forced through long chimneys of volcanic origin called pipes, like the water in a hose when the nozzle is narrowed, their velocity markedly increases and the emplaced diamonds are transported upwards as if they were in an elevator. This is why kimberlite pipes are the sites of most of the world’s diamond mines. But diamonds are not the only passengers. Kimberlites also carry many other types of rock with them on their long journey into the light.

In spite of this “extra load”, kimberlite magmas travel fast, and emerge onto the Earth’s surface in explosive eruptions. “It is generally assumed that volatile gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapour play an essential role in providing the necessary buoyancy to power the rapid rise of kimberlite magmas,” says Dingwell, “but it was not clear how these gases form in the magma.” With the help of laboratory experiments carried out at appropriately high temperatures, Dingwell’s team was able to show that the assimilated xenoliths play an important role in the process. The primordial magma deep in the Earth’s interior is referred to as basic because it mainly consists of carbonate-bearing components, which may also contain a high proportion of water. When the rising magma comes into contact with silicate-rich rocks, they are effectively dissolved in the molten phase, which acidifies the melt. As more silicates are incorporated, the saturation level of carbon dioxide dissolved in the melt progressively increases as carbon dioxide solubility decreases. When the melt becomes saturated, the excess carbon dioxide forms bubbles. “The result is a continuous foaming of the magma, which may reduce its viscosity and certainly imparts the buoyancy necessary to power its very vehement eruption onto the Earth’s surface,” as Dingwell explains. The faster the magma rises, the more silicates are entrained in the flow, and the greater the concentration of dissolved silicates – until finally the amounts of carbon dioxide and water vapor released thrust the hot melt upward with great force, like a rocket. The new findings also explain why kimberlites are found only in ancient continental nuclei. Only here is the crust sufficiently rich in silica-rich minerals to drive their ascent and, moreover, cratonic crust is exceptionally thick. This means that the journey to the surface is correspondingly longer, and the rising magma has plenty of opportunity to come into contact with silicate-rich minerals.

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