Earth’s most abundant mineral finally has a name

An ancient meteorite and high-energy X-rays have helped scientists conclude a half century of effort to find, identify and characterize a mineral that makes up 38 percent of the Earth.

And in doing so, a team of scientists led by Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist at the University of Las Vegas, clarified the definition of the Earth’s most abundant mineral – a high-density form of magnesium iron silicate, now called Bridgmanite – and defined estimated constraint ranges for its formation. Their research was performed at the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The mineral was named after 1964 Nobel laureate and pioneer of high-pressure research Percy Bridgman. The naming does more than fix a vexing gap in scientific lingo; it also will aid our understanding of the deep Earth.

To determine the makeup of the inner layers of the Earth, scientists need to test materials under extreme pressure and temperatures. For decades, scientists have believed a dense perovskite structure makes up 38 percent of the Earth’s volume, and that the chemical and physical properties of Bridgmanite have a large influence on how elements and heat flow through the Earth’s mantle. But since the mineral failed to survive the trip to the surface, no one has been able to test and prove its existence – a requirement for getting a name by the International Mineralogical Association.

Shock-compression that occurs in collisions of asteroid bodies in the solar system create the same hostile conditions of the deep Earth – roughly 2,100 degrees Celsius (3,800 degrees Farenheit) and pressures of about 240,000 times greater than sea-level air pressure. The shock occurs fast enough to inhibit the Bridgmanite breakdown that takes place when it comes under lower pressure, such as the Earth’s surface. Part of the debris from these collisions falls on Earth as meteorites, with the Bridgmanite “frozen” within a shock-melt vein. Previous tests on meteorites using transmission electron microscopy caused radiation damage to the samples and incomplete results.

So the team decided to try a new tactic: non-destructive micro-focused X-rays for diffraction analysis and novel fast-readout area-detector techniques. Tschauner and his colleagues from Caltech and the GeoSoilEnviroCARS, a University of Chicago-operated X-ray beamline at the APS at Argonne National Laboratory, took advantage of the X-rays’ high energy, which gives them the ability to penetrate the meteorite, and their intense brilliance, which leaves little of the radiation behind to cause damage.

The team examined a section of the highly shocked L-chondrite meteorite Tenham, which crashed in Australia in 1879. The GSECARS beamline was optimal for the study because it is one of the nation’s leading locations for conducting high-pressure research.

Bridgmanite grains are rare in the Tenhma meteorite, and they are smaller than 1 micrometer in diameter. Thus the team had to use a strongly focused beam and conduct highly spatially resolved diffraction mapping until an aggregate of Bridgmanite was identified and characterized by structural and compositional analysis.

This first natural specimen of Bridgmanite came with some surprises: It contains an unexpectedly high amount of ferric iron, beyond that of synthetic samples. Natural Bridgmanite also contains much more sodium than most synthetic samples. Thus the crystal chemistry of natural Bridgmanite provides novel crystal chemical insights. This natural sample of Bridgmanite may serve as a complement to experimental studies of deep mantle rocks in the future.

Prior to this study, knowledge about Bridgmanite’s properties has only been based on synthetic samples because it only remains stable below 660 kilometers (410 miles) depth at pressures of above 230 kbar (23 GPa). When it is brought out of the inner Earth, the lower pressures transform it back into less dense minerals. Some scientists believe that some inclusions on diamonds are the marks left by Bridgmanite that changed as the diamonds were unearthed.

The team’s results were published in the November 28 issue of the journal Science as “Discovery of bridgmanite, the most abundant mineral in Earth, in a shocked meteorite,” by O. Tschauner at University of Nevada in Las Vegas, N.V.; C. Ma; J.R. Beckett; G.R. Rossman at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.; C. Prescher; V.B. Prakapenka at University of Chicago in Chicago, IL.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF.

New hi-tech approach to studying sedimentary basins

A radical new approach to analysing sedimentary basins also harnesses technology in a completely novel way. An international research group, led by the University of Sydney, will use big data sets and exponentially increased computing power to model the interaction between processes on the earth’s surface and deep below it in ‘five dimensions’.

As announced by the Federal Minister for Education today, the University’s School of Geosciences will lead the Basin GENESIS Hub that has received $5.4 million over five years from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and industry partners.

The multitude of resources found in sedimentary basins includes groundwater and energy resources. The space between grains of sand in these basins can also be used to store carbon dioxide.

“This research will be of fundamental importance to both the geo-software industry, used by exploration and mining companies, and to other areas of the energy industry,” said Professor Dietmar Müller, Director of the Hub, from the School of Geosciences.

“The outcomes will be especially important for identifying exploration targets in deep basins in remote regions of Australia. It will create a new ‘exploration geodynamics’ toolbox for industry to improve estimates of what resources might be found in individual basins.”

Sedimentary basins form when sediments eroded from highly elevated regions are transported through river systems and deposited into lowland regions and continental margins. The Sydney Basin is a massive basin filled mostly with river sediments that form Hawkesbury sandstone. It is invisible to the Sydney population living above it but has provided building material for many decades.

“Previously the approach to analysing these basins has been based on interpreting geological data and two-dimensional models. We apply infinitely more computing power to enhance our understanding of sedimentary basins as the product of the complex interplay between surface and deep Earth processes,” said Professor Müller.

Associate Professor Rey, a researcher at the School of Geosciences and member of the Hub said, “Our new approach is to understand the formation of sedimentary basins and the changes they undergo, both recently and over millions to hundreds of millions of years, using computer simulations to incorporate information such as the evolution of erosion, sedimentary processes and the deformation of the earth’s crust.”

The researchers will incorporate data from multiple sources to create ‘five-dimensional’ models, combining three-dimensional space with the extra dimensions of time and estimates of uncertainty.

The modelling will span scales from entire basins hundreds of kilometres wide to individual sediment grains.

Key geographical areas the research will focus on are the North-West shelf of Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean continental margins.

The Hub’s technology builds upon the exponential increase in computational power and the increasing amount of available big data (massive data sets of information). The Hub will harness the capacity of Australia’s most powerful computer, launched in 2013.

Water-rich gem points to vast ‘oceans’ beneath the Earth

Graham Pearson holds a diamond that contains the water-rich mineral 'ringwoodite,' a new discovery that yields new clues about the presence of large amounts of water deep beneath the Earth. -  Richard Siemens/University of Alberta
Graham Pearson holds a diamond that contains the water-rich mineral ‘ringwoodite,’ a new discovery that yields new clues about the presence of large amounts of water deep beneath the Earth. – Richard Siemens/University of Alberta

A University of Alberta diamond scientist has found the first terrestrial sample of a water-rich gem that yields new evidence about the existence of large volumes of water deep beneath the Earth.

An international team of scientists led by Graham Pearson, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Arctic Resources at the U of A, has discovered the first-ever sample of a mineral called ringwoodite. Analysis of the mineral shows it contains a significant amount of water-1.5 per cent of its weight-a finding that confirms scientific theories about vast volumes of water trapped 410 to 660 kilometres beneath the Earth, between the upper and lower mantle.

“This sample really provides extremely strong confirmation that there are local wet spots deep in the Earth in this area,” said Pearson, a professor in the Faculty of Science, whose findings were published March 13 in Nature. “That particular zone in the Earth, the transition zone, might have as much water as all the world’s oceans put together.”

Ringwoodite is a form of the mineral peridot, believed to exist in large quantities under high pressures in the transition zone. Ringwoodite has been found in meteorites but, until now, no terrestrial sample has ever been unearthed because scientists haven’t been able to conduct fieldwork at extreme depths.

Pearson’s sample was found in 2008 in the Juina area of Mato Grosso, Brazil, where artisan miners unearthed the host diamond from shallow river gravels. The diamond had been brought to the Earth’s surface by a volcanic rock known as kimberlite-the most deeply derived of all volcanic rocks.

The discovery that almost wasn’t

Pearson said the discovery was almost accidental in that his team had been looking for another mineral when they purchased a three-millimetre-wide, dirty-looking, commercially worthless brown diamond. The ringwoodite itself is invisible to the naked eye, buried beneath the surface, so it was fortunate that it was found by Pearson’s graduate student, John McNeill, in 2009.

“It’s so small, this inclusion, it’s extremely difficult to find, never mind work on,” Pearson said, “so it was a bit of a piece of luck, this discovery, as are many scientific discoveries.”

The sample underwent years of analysis using Raman and infrared spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction before it was officially confirmed as ringwoodite. The critical water measurements were performed at Pearson’s Arctic Resources Geochemistry Laboratory at the U of A. The laboratory forms part of the world-renowned Canadian Centre for Isotopic Microanalysis, also home to the world’s largest academic diamond research group.

The study is a great example of a modern international collaboration with some of the top leaders from various fields, including the Geoscience Institute at Goethe University, University of Padova, Durham University, University of Vienna, Trigon GeoServices and Ghent University.

For Pearson, one of the world’s leading authorities in the study of deep Earth diamond host rocks, the discovery ranks among the most significant of his career, confirming about 50 years of theoretical and experimental work by geophysicists, seismologists and other scientists trying to understand the makeup of the Earth’s interior.

Scientists have been deeply divided about the composition of the transition zone and whether it is full of water or desert-dry. Knowing water exists beneath the crust has implications for the study of volcanism and plate tectonics, affecting how rock melts, cools and shifts below the crust.

“One of the reasons the Earth is such a dynamic planet is the presence of some water in its interior,” Pearson said. “Water changes everything about the way a planet works.”

X-rays reveal inner structure of the Earth’s ancient magma ocean

This shows thin slices of basalt with a diameter of just a fraction of a millimeter were subjected to high pressure in a diamond anvil cell. This sample has been molten and subsequently probed with X-rays three times. -  Chrystèle Sanloup, University of Edinburgh
This shows thin slices of basalt with a diameter of just a fraction of a millimeter were subjected to high pressure in a diamond anvil cell. This sample has been molten and subsequently probed with X-rays three times. – Chrystèle Sanloup, University of Edinburgh

Using the world’s most brilliant X-ray source, scientists have for the first time peered into molten magma at conditions of the deep Earth mantle. The analysis at DESY’s light source PETRA III revealed that molten basalt changes its structure when exposed to pressure of up to 60 gigapascals (GPa), corresponding to a depth of about 1400 kilometres below the surface. At such extreme conditions, the magma changes into a stiffer and denser form, the team around first author Chrystèle Sanloup from the University of Edinburgh reports in the scientific journal Nature. The findings support the concept that the early Earth’s mantle harboured two magma oceans, separated by a crystalline layer. Today, these presumed oceans have crystallized, but molten magma still exists in local patches and maybe thin layers in the mantle.

“Silicate liquids like basaltic magma play a key role at all stages of deep Earth evolution, ranging from core and crust formation billions of years ago to volcanic activity today,” Sanloup emphasised. To investigate the behaviour of magma in the deep mantle, the researchers squeezed small pieces of basalt within a diamond anvil cell and applied up to roughly 600,000 times the standard atmospheric pressure. “But to investigate basaltic magma as it still exists in local patches within the Earth’s mantle, we first had to melt the samples,” explained co-author Zuzana Konôpková from DESY, who supported the experiments at the Extreme Conditions Beamline (ECB), P02 at PETRA III.

The team used two strong infrared lasers that each concentrated a power of up to 40 Watts onto an area just 20 micrometres (millionths of a metre) across – that is about 2000 times the power density at the surface of the sun. A clever alignment of the laser optics allowed the team to shoot the heating lasers right through the diamond anvils. With this unique setup, the basalt samples could be heated up to 3,000 degrees Celsius in just a few seconds, until they were completely molten. To avoid overheating of the diamond anvil cell which would have skewed the X-ray measurements, the heating laser was only switched on for a few seconds before and during the X-ray diffraction patterns were taken. Such short data collection times, crucial for this kind of melting experiments, are only possible thanks to the high X-ray brightness at the ECB. “For the first time, we could study structural changes in molten magma over such a wide range of pressure,” said Konôpková.

The powerful X-rays show that the so-called coordination number of silicon, the most abundant chemical element in magmas, in the melt increases from 4 to 6 under high pressure, meaning that the silicon ions rearrange into a configuration where each has six nearest oxygen neighbours instead of the usual four at ambient conditions. As a result, the basalt density increases from about 2.7 grams per cubic centimetre (g/ccm) at low pressure to almost 5 g/ccm at 60 GPa. “An important question was how this coordination number change happens in the molten state, and how that affects the physical and chemical properties,” explained Sanloup. “The results show that the coordination number changes from 4 to 6 gradually from 10 GPa to 35 GPa in magmas, and once completed, magmas are much stiffer, that is much less compressible.” In contrast, in mantle silicate crystals, the coordination number change occurs abruptly at 25 GPa, which defines the boundary between the upper and lower mantle.

This behaviour allows for the peculiar possibility of layered magma oceans in the early Earth’s interior. “At low pressure, magmas are much more compressible than their crystalline counterparts, while they are almost as stiff above 35 GPa,” explained Sanloup. “This implies that early in the history of the Earth, when it started crystallising, magmas may have been negatively buoyant at the bottom of both, upper and lower mantle, resulting in the existence of two magma oceans, separated by a crystalline layer, as has been proposed earlier by other scientists.”

At the high pressure of the lower Earth mantle, the magma becomes so dense that rocks do not sink into it anymore but float on top. This way a crystallised boundary between an upper and a basal magma ocean could have formed within the young Earth. The existence of two separate magma oceans had been postulated to reconcile geochronological estimates for the duration of the magma ocean era with cooling models for molten magma. While the geochronological estimates yield a duration of a few ten million years for the magma ocean era, cooling models show that a single magma ocean would have cooled much quicker, within just one million years. A crystalline layer would have isolated the lower magma ocean thermally and significantly delayed its cooling down. Today, there are still remnants of the basal magma ocean in the form of melt pockets detected atop the Earth’s core by seismology.

Going deep to study long-term climate evolution

A Rice University-based team of geoscientists is going to great lengths -- from Earth's core to its atmosphere -- to investigate the role that deep-Earth processes play in climate evolution over million-year timescales. -  Rice University
A Rice University-based team of geoscientists is going to great lengths — from Earth’s core to its atmosphere — to investigate the role that deep-Earth processes play in climate evolution over million-year timescales. – Rice University

A Rice University-based team of geoscientists is going to great lengths — from Earth’s core to its atmosphere — to get to the bottom of a long-standing mystery about the planet’s climate.

“We want to know what controls long-term climate change on Earth, the oscillations between greenhouse and icehouse cycles that can last as long as tens of million years,” said Cin-Ty Lee, professor of Earth science at Rice and the principal investigator (PI) on a new $4.3 million, five-year federal grant from the National Science Foundation’s Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics (FESD) Program.

“There are long periods where Earth is relatively cool, like today, where you have ice caps on the North and South poles, and there are also long periods where there are no ice caps,” Lee said. “Earth’s climate has oscillated between these two patterns for at least half a billion years. We want to understand what controls these oscillations, and we have people at universities across the country who are going to attack this problem from many angles.”

For starters, Lee distinguished between the type of climate change that he and his co-investigators are studying and the anthropogenic climate change that often makes headlines.

“We’re working on much longer timescales than what’s involved in anthropogenic climate change,” Lee said. “We’re interested in explaining processes that cycle over tens of millions of years.”

Lee described the research team as “a patchwork of free spirits” that includes bikers, birdwatchers and skateboarders who are drawn together by a common interest in studying the whole Earth dynamics of carbon exchange. The group has specialists in oceanography, petrology, geodynamics, biogeochemistry and other fields, and it includes more than a dozen faculty and students from the U.S., Europe and Asia. Rice co-PIs include Rajdeep Dasgupta, Gerald Dickens and Adrian Lenardic.

The team will focus on how carbon moves between Earth’s external and internal systems. On the external side, carbon is known to cycle between oceans, atmosphere, biosphere and soils on timescales ranging from a few days to a few hundred thousand years. On million-year to billion-year timescales, carbon in these external reservoirs interacts with reservoirs inside Earth, ranging from crustal carbon stored in ancient sediments preserved on the continents to carbon deep in Earth’s mantle.

“Because of these differences in timescales, carbon cycling at Earth’s surface is typically modeled independently from deep-Earth cycling,” Lee said. “We need to bring the two together if we are to understand long-term greenhouse-icehouse cycling.”

From the fossil record, scientists know that atmospheric carbon dioxide plays a vital role in determining Earth’s surface temperatures. Many studies have focused on how carbon moves between the atmosphere, oceans and biosphere. Lee said the FESD team will examine how carbon is removed from the surface and cycled back into the deep Earth, and it will also examine how volcanic eruptions bring carbon from the deep Earth to the surface. In addition, the team will examine the role that volcanic activity and plate tectonics may play in periodically releasing enormous volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. One of several hypotheses that will be tested is whether Earth’s subduction zones may at times be dominated by continental arcs, and if so, whether the passage of magmas through ancient carbonates stored in the continental upper plate can amplify the volcanic flux of carbon.

“Long-term climate variability is intimately linked to whole-Earth carbon cycling,” Lee said. “Our task is to build up a clearer picture of how the inputs and outputs change through time.”

In addition to the Rice team, the project’s primary investigators include Jaime Barnes of the University of Texas at Austin, Jade Star Lackey of Pomona College, Michael Tice of Texas A&M University and Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawaii. Research affiliates include Steve Bergman of Shell, Mark Jellinek of the University of British Columbia, Tapio Schneider of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Yusuke Yokoyama of the University of Tokyo.

Researchers propose new way to probe Earth’s deep interior

The picture depicts the long-range spin-spin interaction (blue wavy lines) in which the spin-sensitive detector on Earth's surface interacts with geoelectrons (red dots) deep in Earth's mantle. The arrows on the geoelectrons indicate their spin orientations, opposite that of Earth's magnetic field lines (white arcs). -  Marc Airhart (University of Texas at Austin) and Steve Jacobsen (Northwestern University).
The picture depicts the long-range spin-spin interaction (blue wavy lines) in which the spin-sensitive detector on Earth’s surface interacts with geoelectrons (red dots) deep in Earth’s mantle. The arrows on the geoelectrons indicate their spin orientations, opposite that of Earth’s magnetic field lines (white arcs). – Marc Airhart (University of Texas at Austin) and Steve Jacobsen (Northwestern University).

Researchers from Amherst College and The University of Texas at Austin have described a new technique that might one day reveal in higher detail than ever before the composition and characteristics of the deep Earth.

There’s just one catch: The technique relies on a fifth force of nature (in addition to gravity, the weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetism) that has not yet been detected, but which some particle physicists think might exist. Physicists call this type of force a long-range spin-spin interaction. If it does exist, this exotic new force would connect matter at Earth’s surface with matter hundreds or even thousands of kilometers below, deep in Earth’s mantle. In other words, the building blocks of atoms-electrons, protons, and neutrons-separated over vast distances would “feel” each other’s presence. The way these particles interact could provide new information about the composition and characteristics of the mantle, which is poorly understood because of its inaccessibility.

“The most rewarding and surprising thing about this project was realizing that particle physics could actually be used to study the deep Earth,” says Jung-Fu “Afu” Lin, associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences and co-author of the study appearing this week in the journal Science.

This new force could help settle a scientific quandary. When earth scientists have tried to model how factors such as iron concentration and physical and chemical properties of matter vary with depth – for example, using the way earthquake rumbles travel through the Earth or through laboratory experiments designed to mimic the intense temperatures and pressures of the deep Earth – they get different answers. The fifth force, assuming it exists, might help reconcile these conflicting lines of evidence.

Earth’s mantle is a thick geological layer sandwiched between the thin outer crust and central core, made up mostly of iron-bearing minerals. The atoms in these minerals and the subatomic particles making up the atoms have a property called spin. Spin can be thought of as an arrow that points in a particular direction. It is thought that Earth’s magnetic field causes some of the electrons in these mantle minerals to become slightly spin-polarized, meaning the directions in which they spin are no longer completely random, but have some preferred orientation. These electrons have been dubbed geoelectrons.

The goal with this project was to see whether the scientists could use the proposed long-range spin-spin interaction to detect the presence of these distant geoelectrons.

The researchers, led by Larry Hunter, professor of physics at Amherst College, first created a computer model of Earth’s interior to map the expected densities and spin directions of geoelectrons. The model was based in part on insights gained from Lin’s laboratory experiments that measure electron spins in minerals at the high temperatures and pressures of Earth’s interior. This map gave the researchers clues about the strength and orientations of interactions they might expect to detect in their specific laboratory location in Amherst, Mass.

Second, the researchers used a specially designed apparatus to search for interactions between geoelectrons deep in the mantle and subatomic particles at Earth’s surface. The team’s experiments essentially explored whether the spins of electrons, neutrons or protons in various laboratories might have a different energy, depending on the direction with respect to the Earth that they were pointing.

“We know, for example, that a magnet has a lower energy when it is oriented parallel to the geomagnetic field and it lines up with this particular direction – that is how a compass works,” explains Hunter. “Our experiments removed this magnetic interaction and looked to see if there might be some other interaction with our experimental spins. One interpretation of this ‘other’ interaction is that it could be a long-range interaction between the spins in our apparatus and the electron spins within the Earth, that have been aligned by the geomagnetic field. This is the long-range spin-spin interaction we were looking for.”

Although the apparatus was not able to detect any such interactions, the researchers could at least infer that such interactions, if they exist, must be incredibly weak – no more than a millionth of the strength of the gravitational attraction between the particles. That’s useful information as scientists now look for ways to build ever more sensitive instruments to search for the elusive fifth force.

“No one had previously thought about the possible interactions that might occur between the Earth’s spin-polarized electrons and precision laboratory spin-measurements,” says Hunter.

“If the long-range spin-spin interactions are discovered in future experiments, geoscientists can eventually use such information to reliably understand the geochemistry and geophysics of the planet’s interior,” says Lin.