Diamonds in Earth’s oldest zircons are nothing but laboratory contamination

This image explains how synthetic diamond can be distinguished from natural diamond. -  Dobrzhinetskaya Lab, UC Riverside.
This image explains how synthetic diamond can be distinguished from natural diamond. – Dobrzhinetskaya Lab, UC Riverside.

As is well known, the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old. No rocks exist, however, that are older than about 3.8 billion years. A sedimentary rock section in the Jack Hills of western Australia, more than 3 billion years old, contains within it zircons that were eroded from rocks as old as about 4.3 billion years, making these zircons, called Jack Hills zircons, the oldest recorded geological material on the planet.

In 2007 and 2008, two research papers reported in the journal Nature that a suite of zircons from the Jack Hills included diamonds, requiring a radical revision of early Earth history. The papers posited that the diamonds formed, somehow, before the oldest zircons – that is, before 4.3 billion years ago – and then were recycled repeatedly over a period of 1.2 billion years during which they were periodically incorporated into the zircons by an unidentified process.

Now a team of three researchers, two of whom are at the University of California, Riverside, has discovered using electron microscopy that the diamonds in question are not diamonds at all but broken fragments of a diamond-polishing compound that got embedded when the zircon specimen was prepared for analysis by the authors of the Nature papers.

“The diamonds are not indigenous to the zircons,” said Harry Green, a research geophysicist and a distinguished professor of the Graduate Division at UC Riverside, who was involved in the research. “They are contamination. This, combined with the lack of diamonds in any other samples of Jack Hills zircons, strongly suggests that there are no indigenous diamonds in the Jack Hills zircons.”

Study results appear online this week in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

“It occurred to us that a long-term history of diamond recycling with intermittent trapping into zircons would likely leave some sort of microstructural record at the interface between the diamonds and zircon,” said Larissa Dobrzhinetskaya, a professional researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at UCR and the first author of the research paper. “We reasoned that high-resolution electron microscopy of the material should be able to distinguish whether the diamonds are indeed what they have been believed to be.”

Using an intensive search with high-resolution secondary-electron imaging and transmission electron microscopy, the research team confirmed the presence of diamonds in the Jack Hills zircon samples they examined but could readily identify them as broken fragments of diamond paste that the original authors had used to polish the zircons for examination. They also observed quartz, graphite, apatite, rutile, iron oxides, feldspars and other low-pressure minerals commonly included into zircon in granitic rocks.

“In other words, they are contamination from polishing with diamond paste that was mechanically injected into silicate inclusions during polishing” Green said.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Green and Dobrzhinetskaya were joined in the research by Richard Wirth at the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, Germany.

Dobrzhinetskaya and Green planned the research project; Dobrzhinetskaya led the project; she and Wirth did the electron microscopy.

Key component of Earth’s crust formed from moving, molten rock, researchers discover

Layers of metamorphic rock, similar to granulite, in British Columbia. The coin is shown to provide scale. - Credit: Gabriela Depine
Layers of metamorphic rock, similar to granulite, in British Columbia. The coin is shown to provide scale. – Credit: Gabriela Depine

Earth scientists are in the business of backing into history — extrapolating what happened millions of years ago based on what they can observe now. Using this method, a team of Cornell researchers has created a mathematical computer model of the formation of granulite, a fine-grained metamorphic rock, in the Earth’s crust.

By studying what were once pockets of hot, melted rock 13 kilometers (about 8 miles) deep in the Earth’s crust 55 million years ago and calculating the period of cooling, the scientists were able to explain how granulite is formed as the molten rock migrates upward through the crust.

The research is published in the March issue of the journal Nature by Gabriela V. Depine, a fourth-year graduate student in earth and atmospheric sciences (EAS); Christopher L. Andronicos, an EAS associate professor; and Jason Phipps-Morgan, professor of EAS. The research is funded by Cornell and by the National Science Foundation’s Continental Dynamics program.

Granulite, composed mainly of feldspars, has almost no water in its chemical makeup and is created in temperatures of 700 to 800 degrees Celsius (1,292 to 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit). It is a major component of the continental crust.

Working in British Columbia in summer 2006, the researchers puzzled over the formation of granulite, which, unlike other rocks, forms under a wide range of depths but under a narrow range of temperatures. In the continental crust, temperature was usually believed to increase almost linearly with depth — that is, the deeper the crust, the hotter the rock.

The researchers decided to mathematically re-create the formation of granulite at various depths, to see if they could come up a method that mirrors the natural formation of the rock.

They did so by looking at plutons, or pockets of hot, melted rock that were once as much as 13 kilometers below the Earth’s surface but are now exposed. (Plutons that rise to the surface and erupt can become volcanoes.) The researchers found that the melted rock deep in the Earth is buoyant and will migrate upward through the crust to form a pluton. Heat conducting downward from the hot pluton will, in turn, raise the temperature of the underlying rock to the pluton temperature. They then realized that granulite can form at various depths but at similar temperatures.

Looking at the melting process is like looking at the process of the formation of continents, Andronicos explained.

“If you look over geologic time, not all the rocks are the same age, and the reason for that is they got formed at different times,” he said. “So if you can get a handle on the temperature, which is what controls melting and metamorphism, then you have a better idea of some of the fundamental controls that lead to rock formation and, therefore, continents.”

The computer model, he said, hopefully will provide further insight into the energy balance of the Earth during crustal formation.